Minnesota-Duluth entered the NCAA Tournament just five games over .500 but pulled off four straight one-goal wins to earn its second Division I title.
And the goalie that was in net for every minute of the Bulldogs’ playoff run, Hunter Shepard, returns for his junior season.
NCAA titles: 2 (2011, 2018).
COACH: Scott Sandelin (340-300-85 in 18 seasons).
2017-18 RECORD: 25-16-3.
POSTSEASON: Won NCAA Tournament.
RINK (capacity): Amsoil Arena (6,726).
MIAMI VS. UMD LAST SEASON: 1-3.
ALL-TIME SERIES: Minn.-Duluth leads, 15-4-2.
SCHEDULE VS. MIAMI: Jan. 18-19 – at Miami; March 1-2 – at Minn.-Duluth.
TOP RETURNING PLAYERS: G Hunter Shepard, F Parker Mackay, D Scott Perunovich, D Nick Wolff, F Riley Tufte, D Mikey Anderson, D Dylan Samberg, F Peter Krieger, F Joey Anderson.
KEY NEW FACES: F Jackson Cates, F Noah Cates, F Cole Koepke.
NOTES: A couple of pieces may be gone from last season’s championship team, but Minn.-Duluth’s back end looks as good as any in college hockey.
Shepard logged 41 games and posted a 1.91 goals-against average and a save percentage of .925, and four returning defenseman recorded at least 13 points in 2017-18.
Shepard was second in Division I with 25 wins, 10th in save percentage and sixth in GAA. He won all four of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Tournament games this spring.
Blueliner Scott Perunovich led the team in plus-minus (22), assists (25) and points (36), and Mikey Anderson went 5-18-23.
Nick Wolff and Dylan Samberg finished with 13 points apiece, with Wolff hitting the net seven times and leading the Bulldogs with 81 penalty minutes.
Wolff and Samberg combined for 150 blocked shots.
Minn.-Duluth brings all that experience back after allowing just 2.09 goals per game last season – the fourth-best clip in the NCAA – and surrendering just 57 even strength tallies.
UMD also returns its top three points-producing forwards from its title year.
Peter Krieger led all forwards with 30 points and netted a team-best five game-winning goals. Riley Tufte finished with 29 points including a Bulldogs-high 16 markers, and Nick Swaney went 6-16-22, posting a plus-11 rating.
Newly-named captain Parker Mackay is also back and is a two-way stud up front.
The Bulldogs still have not released their 2018-19 roster, so it’s unclear how many freshmen they will bring in, but three players from that incoming class participated in NHL development camps this summer – Cole Koepke, Noah Cates and Jackson Cates.
NOTE: BoB is previewing each NCHC team leading into the 2018-19 season. This is the third of seven installments.
Here are the links for the other snapshots:
It’s not the type of hat trick Miami was hoping for.
The RedHawks set a school record by being shut out for the third straight game, this time 3-0 vs. No. 11 Minnesota-Duluth at Amsoil Arena.
That loss mathematically eliminates Miami from the possibility of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and also crushes any hope the team had for home-ice advantage in the first round of the NCHC Tournament.
The RedHawks have not scored in 212:01 or more than 10½ periods.
To qualify for the NCAAs by an at-large berth, a team has to have a winning record. Miami is seven games under .500, and running the table through the NCHCs is the only way it could pull that off.
Winning the NCHC Tournament would give the RedHawks an automatic bid.
MU, currently in last place in the conference, can finish no higher than sixth place. It could catch Nebraska-Omaha and Colorado College or Western Michigan but not both of the latter. Though both are technically in striking distance for Miami, CC and WMU play each other and are guaranteed six points between them that weekend.
Which means for the third straight season, the RedHawks will head to the road to open the NCHC Tournament. They were swept by Minnesota-Duluth in both 2015-16 and 2016-17, ending those seasons.
Miami is 0-10-1 in its last 11 games in this building, with its last win coming on Oct. 31, 2014. The RedHawks have been outscored, 44-22 on UMD’s home ice during that stretch.
RECAP: Jared Thomas opened the scoring for the Bulldogs (16-13-3) midway through the first period.
That score held through a second period that saw Miami outshoot UMD, 14-1.
But the RedHawks could not generate the equalizer. Casey Gilling came the closest, ringing one off the post.
With 6:13 left in regulation, Nick Wolff extended the Bulldogs’ lead to two, and Joey Anderson found the empty net with 24 seconds remaining.
STATS: Kiefer Sherwood led all Miami skaters with five shots on goal. Gordie Green and Louie Belpedio added four each.
Chaz Switzer finished with a team-best three blocks.
— Miami played six times in January and averaged 3.67 goals. In six February contests, the RedHawks are scoring 1.33 goals per game and 0.80 in their last five.
— MU’s 34 shots on goal was its second-highest total of the year. The RedHawks fired 44 shots in a 7-1 win over Connecticut on Oct. 28.
— The last time Miami won on Saturday, it was against this team. That was Nov. 18. The RedHawks are 0-7-2 in series finales since.
THOUGHTS: Like last Saturday, Miami deserved a better fate than a 3-0 loss.
The RedHawks once again ran into a hot goalie, as Hunter Shepard turned 34 shots aside in this game and stopped all 50 that he faced on the weekend.
So while it’s easy to look at three straight zeroes and say Miami’s offense must be in complete meltdown mode, in two of these games the RedHawks actually played pretty well.
But when you only play well one night of a series against teams of this caliber, it’s going to be a long season.
LINEUP CHANGES: Coach Enrico Blasi shook things up a little bit, bringing back defenseman Chaz Switzer after two games of sitting out. Grant Frederic was scratched to make room.
Up front, Willie Knierim and Zach LaValle both dressed. Knierim had not played in two games in a row and LaValle was a scratch five straight contests. Not in the lineup were Austin Alger and Carter Johnson.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Yes, Miami could technically pull itself out of eighth place in the conference if it strung some wins together in its final four regular season games, but the RedHawks’ fate has been sealed.
They will head on the road against a top-10 team to open a conference tournament they will need to win if they hope to avoid missing the NCAAs for the third straight season.
Most likely MU will head to St. Cloud State or Denver, two of the top five programs in college hockey.
As an eight seed, Miami nearly pulled that off in 2013-14 by sweeping St. Cloud on the road and beating North Dakota in the semifinal before falling a goal short in the championship game.
But that’s a tall, tall task especially this season with the NCHC being undoubtedly the premier league in Division I.
Back to the house of horrors for Miami.
The RedHawks were shut out in their personal torture chamber, Amsoil Arena, 4-0 vs. No. 11 Minnesota-Duluth on Friday night. It was the second straight game in which Miami failed to light the lamp, bringing their scoreless streak to 152:01.
MU was also blanked by St. Cloud State in its series finale vs. St. Cloud State last Saturday.
The loss drops the RedHawks (10-16-3) a season-worst six games under .500, as they are guaranteed their third straight losing regular season.
Miami slipped to 0-9-1 in its last 10 games in Duluth.
RECAP: A pair of quick goals midway through the first period was all Minnesota-Duluth would need.
Mikey Anderson got the Bulldogs (15-13-3) on the board at the 8:19 mark and exactly two minutes later, Billy Exell extended their lead to two.
Jade Miller and Louie Roehl added markers in the second and third periods to seal it.
STATS: Miami was outshot, 13-4 in the first period and 29-11 through the opening 40 minutes.
— Gordie Green and Carson Meyer fired three shots each. Josh Melnick and Louie Belpedio blocked three shots apiece.
— The RedHawks slipped to 1-13-1 in their last 15 games in February and beyond.
THOUGHTS: It was Jan. 5 when Miami beat Denver to improve to 9-8-2, and at that point an NCAA at-large berth seemed like a legitimate possibility.
The six weeks since have been a dumpster fire, with the RedHawks going 1-8-1 and pretty much eliminating themselves from NCAA Tournament consideration by any means other than an NCHC Tournament win.
The RedHawks were beaten soundly in that finale vs. the Pioneers, which was not surprising considering they’re one of the best teams in Division I.
Miami had winnable road games vs. UNO and Colorado College, but its defense was a no-show for those series. MU went 0-3-1 and allowed 25 goals in those games.
The RedHawks won their first game back on home ice, 4-2 vs. Western Michigan but dropped the next three in Oxford, one to WMU and a pair to St. Cloud State.
Now the offense is AWOL, as Miami was shut out for the final 92:01 of its series vs. the Huskies.
Add 60 to that after failing to score in this contest.
The difference between that SCSU shutout and this one is the RedHawks actually played well for most of their game against the Huskies. They laid an egg on Friday – a goose egg.
LINEUP CHANGES: It was the same 18 skaters for Miami, but Ryan Larkin was back in net after sitting the Saturday game vs. St. Cloud State due to an illness.
Chase Munroe was between the pipes for that contest.
FINAL THOUGHTS: With Miami destined for a road series to open the NCHC Tournament, it’s becoming a distinct possibility the RedHawks finish the regular season at Denver and return there the following weekend a la 2015-16 vs. Duluth.
MU’s chances of having a lucrative postseason get longer with every February loss.
OXFORD, Ohio – In team sports, sometimes an emotional spark is needed.
Miami, which was 0-9-2 vs. Minnesota-Duluth the past two-plus seasons, was losing again on Saturday when its galvanizing moment occurred.
The RedHawks scored the next three goals and eradicated their winless streak vs. the Bulldogs, holding on for a 3-2 win at Cady Arena.
A quick stage set: UMD is an excellent team that has a reputation for playing chippy hockey, playing on the edge, sometimes over the edge.
Remember that one of the first times these teams met in Oxford, Chris Joyaux squared off after the final whistle with three dozen skaters and a handful of goalies on the ice.
So on Saturday, Minnesota-Duluth took a late poke at Miami goalie Ryan Larkin after a puck was clearly frozen.
Chaz Switzer took exception and pushed another player behind the net, and the Bulldogs were not called.
Minutes later, UMD took a run at Larkin, and again it was Switzer coming to his goalie’s defense, using offender Avery Peterson as a human punching bag before officials intervened.
Switzer was given five minutes for fighting and a game disqualification penalty, which carries a one-game suspension. He left the ice to a standing ovation by fans that had little to cheer about to that point of the weekend.
And here’s where hockey and the attitudes of many its fans/players/coaches/etc., deviates from the majority of other team sports.
The hate mail may roll in from those in other sports’ camps and the college-hockey-is-pure-and-fighting-is-barbaric-crowd, and that’s OK. So here goes.
Not only is Switzer a stud for what he did, it’s the officials’ fault he’s going to be suspended.
Larkin is a RedHawks star. Anyone who knows anything about UMD hockey knows its players are old-school WCHA all the way. That means ultra-physical play, after-the-whistle confrontations and yes, the occasional fisticuffs.
If a dumb fan sitting at a word processor knows this, certainly NCHC officials do, right?
So when Larkin gets hit the first time, you assess a penalty. If you don’t really think it warrants a Miami power play, you penalize the violator and Switzer two minutes each.
That sends the message that we’re watching and goalie running will be punished.
You do that, the second incident and resulting fighting major/suspension almost certainly doesn’t happen.
Even if you blow that, there have been plenty of times when players in Switzer’s situation have just received a game misconduct than the DQ, which carries an automatic suspension.
The officials didn’t have Larkin’s back, so Switzer did.
Good for Switzer. If it wasn’t for players like Switzer, the NCAA would have 60 teams like Michigan who take out players’ knees and cross-check players in the head with relatively few repercussions.
Miami dressed seven defensemen for this game, so the team went in able to absorb the loss of a blueliner.
Switzer is a five or six defenseman who struggled at times last season and has stepped up his play significantly this fall. He had 294 penalty minutes in 121 games of juniors, so clearly he’s no stranger to extracurriculars.
Don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but it’s very, very likely Switzer earned ample respect from his teammates. He certainly made a lot of fans in his home rink.
The on-ice results were obvious in the final two periods.
Coach Enrico Blasi wasn’t asked about the incident (seriously, the event that changed the game never made it into the presser forum?), and while he wisely did not address the incident he acknowledged the team struggled in the first period but played much better the final 40 minutes.
Through the years, RedHawks teams rarely cross the line (think that was the first fighting major since Alden Hirschfeld seven years ago?), but they typically are prepared to defend themselves when their opponents do.
UMD took a couple of late shots at Miami’s goalie in an attempt to intimidate its southern Ohio rival, and it backfired.
– Now onto far less controversial topics. Despite the split, Miami was the better team this weekend and certainly didn’t seem overmatched by a ranked Bulldogs team.
Friday’s loss aside, it was a good weekend for Miami, which didn’t win its fifth game in 2016-17 until New Year’s Eve.
– Carson Meyer broke out with goals in both ends of the series after scoring just one the first 10 games. Meyer heating up means good things for the Miami offense.
– Same goes for Ryan Siroky, who scored on his only shot of the night for his second marker in three games. He had two more big hits on the weekend and has become a very solid third liner that no one wants to play against.
– Karch Bachman picked up another assist and has already matched his point total of 2016-17 with an identical 2-4-6 line. He was the only forward to finish plus-2 in this game.
– Despite those forwards stepping up, MU is averaging 1.8 goals over its last five games. Up next is Bowling Green, which is 11th in the NCAA in goals allowed per game.
– UMD had 10 skaters take faceoffs. That might be an NCAA record. Only two had winning records, so perhaps the Bulldogs are auditioning their forwards? But still, 10 skaters?
FORWARDS: B. With 11 forwards, there were a lot of different line combinations. Despite the odd number, the overall chemistry of this corps was good. Josh Melnick and Gordie Green put on a show with their goal, passing back and forth before Melnick buried a wrister for the eventual game winner. This group was solid defensively all weekend as well.
DEFENSEMEN: B. Believe it or not, 29 shots allowed is the fourth-highest opponent total of the season for Miami. As mentioned above, the forwards chipped in on D, and the D was strong on D, thus the ‘B’. Many of those 29 shots were right at Larkin, who swallowed them up for easy saves. Grant Frederic played just two of the first eight games but has dressed for three of the last four and has been pretty much mistake-free.
GOALTENDING: B. UMD’s first goal was a rapid-fire missile that Larkin had no chance on. Maybe Larkin could’ve gloved the Bulldogs’ second shot, but he stopped 27 shots and as usual allowed few second chances.
LINEUP CHANGES: With Frederic in as the seventh defenseman, F Christian Mohs was scratched. Zach LaValle sat for the second consecutive game, and Willie Knierim played in his third straight. Frederic should play at least the front end of the BGSU series with Switzer suspended.
OXFORD, Ohio – Of all the sounds at a hockey rink, the final horn was the sweetest for Miami.
The RedHawks led by two with under two minutes left but held on – literally by inches – for a 3-2 win over No. 14 Minnesota-Duluth at Cady Arena on Saturday.
The teams split the weekend series, as Miami snapped an 11-game winless streak against the Bulldogs.
Miami led, 3-1, but a wrister by UMD’s Parker Mackay with 1:23 left in regulation beat RedHawks goalie Ryan Larkin on the glove side, cutting the lead to one.
In the closing seconds, a loose puck in the Miami crease was poked toward the net but was turned aside just shy of the goal line.
Minnesota-Duluth (6-6-2) took the lead when a rebound kicked out to Nick Wolff, who slammed it just under the crossbar with 7:25 left in the first period.
Miami’s Willie Knierim slid a pass from the side of the net that hit a body and slid back to Ryan Siroky in the high slot. Siroky stepped into it, and his slap shot tied it at the 13:23 mark of the middle stanza.
The RedHawks (5-6-1) went ahead when Carson Meyer batted in a puck from the side of the net on the short side, as goalie Hunter Shepard was unable to hug the post. Scott Dornbrock had fed the puck to Meyer from the blue line with 1:39 left in the middle frame.
Miami’s Gordie Green and Josh Melnick played give-and-go at the blue line, as Melnick took the return pass from Green, skated in and buried a shot from the center of the faceoff circle three minutes into the third period, giving the RedHawks a 3-1 lead.
That set up the frantic final moments, as Shepard headed to the bench at the 18-minute mark.
Meyer scored for the second straight game. Siroky found net for the second time in three contests, and that makes four in seven for Melnick.
Louie Belpedio picked up an assist, extending his points streak to three games.
Knierim also earned a helper for his first point of 2017-18.
The RedHawks were 0-9-2 in their last 11 games against the Bulldogs, as they snapped a 33-month winless drought vs. UMD.
Miami is now 2-3-1 in NCHC play and is in sixth place in the league. The RedHawks improved to 40th in the PairWise rankings.
MU heads to Bowling Green for a weekend series Nov. 24-25. Game times are 7:37 p.m. on Friday and 7:07 p.m. Saturday.
OXFORD, Ohio – Puck luck played a major role in Friday’s outcome.
And Miami had none.
The RedHawks hit four posts and were unable to convert several other close chances as they fell, 3-1 to No. 14 Minnesota-Duluth at Cady Arena.
The Bulldogs extended their unbeaten streak against MU to 11.
Miami (4-6-1) controlled play during the first 14 minutes, but after a defensive-zone turnover, a wrister from the high slot by the Bulldogs’ Jared Thomas was partially deflected by RedHawks goalie Ryan Larkin, popped over the netminder and rolled across the goal line to give UMD the lead.
A pane of glass broke in the corner of the rink, causing a 15-minute delay and killing any energy remaining from MU’s surge.
Miami tied it less than four minutes into the third period when Louie Belpedio connected on a pass from along the boards to Carson Meyer, who was in the slot. Meyer whipped an off-balance shot that found twine with seven seconds left on a power play.
But Minnesota-Duluth (6-5-2) regained the lead on a man-advantage of its own. With 5:09 left in regulation, Thomas blasted a one-timer past Larkin from the center of the faceoff circle after a long shift in the offensive zone.
Thomas had not scored this season entering Friday.
Again, MU had dictated play prior to that decisive power play.
The Bulldogs sealed it 76 seconds later on a slap shot by Scott Perunovich from just inside the blue line, as his shot slipped through Larkin’s pads.
Miami had rang the puck off posts twice in the same shift earlier in the period and finished with 15 shots on goal in that frame.
The RedHawks outshot UMD, 29-19 and have led on the shot counter in eight of their 11 contests this season.
Meyer snapped a six-game scoreless streak. Belpedio picked up a point for the second streak tilt, and Karch Bachman picked up the other helper, his second point in three games.
Miami’s power play goal was its first in five games.
The RedHawks are now 0-9-2 in their last 11 games against Minnesota-Duluth. MU’s last win against the Bulldogs came on Feb. 21, 2015.
Miami falls to 1-3-1 in the NCHC and is winless in its last four, going 0-3-1.
The teams wrap up their weekend series at 7:05 p.m. on Saturday.
Miami has not won in six weeks, but its next loss will be its last of the season.
The RedHawks lost their NCHC Tournament first-round opener in their best-of-3 series, 5-4 in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth at Amsoil Arena on Friday and now face elimination in that series.
Miami’s path from here on out couldn’t be more clear: Win or go home. The RedHawks would need to win on Saturday and Sunday at No. 3 UMD then run the table in the semifinal and final of the league tournament in Minneapolis.
That would earn them a berth into the NCAA Tournament, which, of course, is one and out.
An unlikely scenario made more improbable considering the first half of the opening sentence. Miami is 0-8-1 in its last nine and 1-11-2 since Jan. 14.
To Miami’s credit, it took the third-best team in Division I to overtime in the Bulldogs’ home building on Friday despite missing captain Louie Belpedio and losing stud goalie Ryan Larkin in the second period.
The RedHawks led three times in the game (2-1, 3-2 and 4-3) but were unable to close out the win, a common theme in 2016-17.
Backup goalie Chase Munroe had not logged a minute in exactly three months, and after stopping just three of the first five shots he faced, he turned aside 26 of the final 28. He faced a shooting gallery in the final 20 minutes of regulation and overtime, and didn’t get a lot of help from his skaters defensively.
It would’ve been easy for this team to mail it in, considering the near impossibility of its task of winning this tournament.
But the RedHawks didn’t quit, and in a season that will likely go down as their worst in a quarter century, that’s an encouraging sign.
Crazy things happen in conference tournaments, and it would take a run that makes 2013-14 look tame just for Miami to return the position it was in three years when it came within a goal of advancing to the NCAAs despite a 12-19-3 regular season record.
The RedHawks have their backs against the boards but are playing with passion, and in Game 2 we’ll see if that’s enough to extend the season.
– No idea what Larkin’s injury is or how severe, but when a goalie leaves a game and doesn’t return he rarely returns the next night. Already Belpedio-less, that makes MU’s chances of advancing in this round even more remote. If there is a bright spot it’s that Munroe earned valuable conference tournament experience, and as we recall, Jay Williams was shaky early before finding his groove, as was Charlie Effinger before him.
– Scorers’ list from Friday boom: Ryan Siroky and Zach LaValle, in the bottom six of the forward list on the lineup card all season, both scored in this one. It was just their third and second goals of the season, respectively, although LaValle especially seems to have picked it up a notch recently. This is encouraging because Miami was able to hang without its go-to snipers finding the net, and also the lack of scoring from non-top six forwards has been well documented here.
– Scorers’ list from Friday bust: Josh Melnick hasn’t scored in seven games and Anthony Louis has been stuck on 13 goals for 13 games. Kiefer Sherwood was limited to one shot. Scoring from tertiary forwards is great, but the top players need to be top players in the playoffs for teams to advance.
– Yet another Gordie Green update. Hate to be redundant but Green has been the hottest forward on the team with seven points in four games and 11 in his last 10 – more than anyone else on the team.
– Speaking of points surges, two assists on Friday give Grant Hutton eight points in his last seven games. He picked up three helpers the first 28 games but has five in the last seven. On a team that has struggled mightily the past two months, it says a lot that a pair of underclassmen in Green and Hutton are two of the RedHawks’ top points producers. Green is a freshman and Hutton is a defenseman.
– Shots were close the first two periods: 14-12 UMD. Shots after: 27-10 UMD. Miami has now been outshot in 13 straight regulation periods. The RedHawks have allowed 474 shots while generating just 320 during their current 1-11-2 skid.
Miami had played in 10 overtime games this season without suffering a loss.
That streak was broken on Friday, as No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth edged the RedHawks, 5-4 in an NCHC Tournament best-of-3 opener in the quarterfinal round at Amsoil Arena.
Alex Iafallo skated behind the crease and had his wrap-around denied by MU goalie Chase Munroe, but Dominic Toninato was there at the top of the crease to slam home the game winner 7:24 into the extra session.
Miami is winless in its last nine games, going 0-8-1 in that span, and faces elimination on Saturday.
Parker Mackay stole the puck from Josh Melnick, skated across the slot and wristed one home to give Minnesota-Duluth the lead 5:21 into the first period.
Miami (9-19-7) answered with a pair of goals in the next 64 seconds. On a 2-on-1, Gordie Green passed through the slot to Zach LaValle, who skated around sprawled-out UMD goalie Hunter Miska and deposited the puck in the net to tie it.
Carson Meyer put the RedHawks ahead when he beat two defenders to a loose puck to gain the zone then ultimately grabbed the rebound off an outside shot from Anthony Louis, burying it to make it 2-1.
Moments later, there was a pile-up in the Miami crease, and RedHawks goalie Ryan Larkin was injured. He did not return and was replaced by Munroe, who had not played in a game in three months.
The Bulldogs (22-6-7) tied it at two when Nick Wolff fired a blue line shot that caromed off the end boards to Riley Tufte, who was wide open at the side of the net for a tap-in at the end of a long shift with 16:16 left in the second period.
Green one-timed a shot from the slot off a pass by Grant Hutton from behind the UMD net as Miami regained the lead, 3-2 with 4:06 remaining in the middle stanza.
That RedHawks lead was short-lived, as Iafallo skated the length of the ice on a 2-on-2, crashed the net and backhanded it past Munroe to tie it just 43 seconds later.
Miami took its third lead of the game with 8:46 to play in regulation when Ryan Siroky whipped a puck on net from along the boards, and it hit a body in the slot, trickling past Miska.
Once again, Minnesota-Duluth answered quickly, as Karson Kuhlman slid a pass through two defenders to Tufte, who was wide open in the slot. Munroe made the initial save but Tufte corralled his own rebound and scored just 65 seconds after the RedHawks’ goal to make it 4-4.
Green finished with a goal and an assist, giving him helpers in four straight games and seven points in that stretch. Hutton earned a pair of assists and has 10 points in his last 11 contests.
Game 2 is scheduled for 8:37 p.m. on Saturday.
Having watched a lot of hockey at a lot of levels, it’s not hyperbole to say this is one of the most frustrating teams to watch in this lifetime.
Unfortunately, that cliché about “close” counting doesn’t refer to hockey and hand grenades, or else Miami would be in much better shape after its 3-3 tie at No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth on Friday.
Because in many ways, close is what the RedHawks (9-16-7) are to being a successful team and not one mired seven games under .500, facing a brutal road series to advance in the NCHC Tournament in two weeks just to extend their season. And it’s frustrating that they’ve not been able to close teams out too many times this season.
Close – amazingly – is what Miami is to defaulting to home-ice advantage in that round despite a 5-12-5 league record, as the team is only six points out of that elusive fourth seed. Frustrating because with Duluth and Denver running away with the top two seeds, the points threshold for that seed is lower than in any of the four seasons of the NCHC.
Close in forward depth, as this team has true offensive stars in Anthony Louis, Kiefer Sherwood, Josh Melnick and Carson Meyer. Gordie Green’s stock has soared the past two months, and Willie Knierim seems to be figuring it out at a steady, big guy, 19-year-old-in-D-I pace. Frustrating because the other seven forwards on the roster have a combined total of seven goals.
Close at defense, an area BoB highlighted at the beginning of the season with half of its studly blue line from 2015-16 graduating, as Grant Hutton is becoming a leader among this group and youngsters like Chaz Switzer appear to be gaining confidence. Frustrating because that progress has been too slow for some, veterans are making too many unforced mistakes and opponents are still setting up shop in front of the Miami net far too often with over 90 percent of the regular season in the books.
Well past close to “arrived” status in net, as Ryan Larkin has been a savior for this team – pun intended – as he has faced far too many A-plus scoring chances this season but still owns a .912 save percentage. Even that area is frustrating because he appears to be either tiring or losing a bit of confidence and has allowed the occasional soft goal in recent weeks that never would’ve gone in during December or January.
Close because this team showed a flash of excellence when it ran off five straight wins around the holidays and outscored its opponents, 18-2 in the third period and overtime during that span, with Melnick netting a pair of highlight-reel OT winners. Frustrating because the RedHawks suffered through an 0-7-3 span – their longest winless stretch in a quarter century – and are currently 1-8-2 in their last 11 during their most important games when they were given every chance to move up both in PairWise and the NCHC standings to earn their way into the NCAAs. And oh yeah, they’ve been outscored, 16-4 in the third period in their last seven, giving up multiple goals in the final stanza in every one of those contests.
This weekend is a microcosm of close and frustrating. Miami came back from 2-0 on Thursday to tie the second-ranked team in college hockey on the road, then after the Bulldogs (20-5-7) surged ahead again, the RedHawks again evened the score at three. Finally UMD buried a power play chance with a minute and a half left. Miami salvaged a tie on Friday and earned the extra league point.
The RedHawks have played some of their best hockey against top-ranked opponents like Minnesota-Duluth. This was probably the toughest series on Miami’s entire season schedule, and even without its captain, MU hung with the Bulldogs both games.
But it’s the story of the season: the RedHawks couldn’t get the win either night. Close doesn’t count in hockey.
– Is this series an example, like we talked about last week, of a team that is playing loose because home ice and PairWise are no longer factors? At six games under .500 heading into this weekend, these outcomes really don’t matter except for NCHC Tournament seeding. That takes a lot of pressure off a team that was in a bad place after the recent St. Cloud series. The focus now is getting better next weekend and preparing for that all-important best-of-3 in two weeks.
– How much of an impact does the return of Justin Greenberg and the loss of Louie Belpedio have on this team? Greenberg’s injury hurt the team on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle, and Louie Belpedio missed this weekend after being kneed last weekend. Those changes can affect the chemistry of a team – positively or negatively – and based on where Miami was for the Denver series and where it was this weekend, it seems like the RedHawks got a boost from Greenberg and were more fired up after losing their captain.
– And on the latter, BoB wishes a speedy return to Belpedio, who is a team leader on and off the ice and a delight to talk to. He’s had some struggles this year with penalties and turnovers, but captaincy on this team is very difficult. We even saw it affect Austin Czarnik, one of the best Miamians in team history and a current NHLer who could play there for the next decade.
– In fairness to the above, injuries really have played a role with this team, as Meyer, Larkin, Belpedio, Greenberg and Jared Brandt have all missed time this season, and with just three extra skaters on the team, Miami doesn’t really have the depth to absorb personnel losses. Christian Mohs hurt his knee before the season even started and has been out for the season, which put the RedHawks shorthanded from Day 1.
– Miami was mathematically eliminated from home ice after failing to secure three points on Friday. Long story as short as possible, if the RedHawks won out and Nebraska-Omaha won on Saturday then was swept next weekend, and St. Cloud State was swept, that would be best albeit super-unlikely scenario, as Miami would finish in a three-way tie with whatever the Sioux are calling themselves these days and the Huskies. But the RedHawks would still be 3-4-1 against those two teams and would end up with a six seed. So much for the suspense.
– In the bizarre stats area, Hutton is now tied with Melnick for best shooting percentage on the team, as both have scored nine times on 49 shots (.184). Maybe Brandt’s first career goal in Oxford last Saturday instilled confidence in him, as he had 27 shots on goal all season entering this weekend and fired six times in these two games, finding the net twice.
– Tapping the old memory banks to recall a team that was more self-strangulation inducing, the 2000-01 Cincinnati Mighty Ducks come to mind. That team had to use 12 goalies during the regular season and lost player after player to Anaheim and Detroit, that team’s affiliates. They finished above .500 but took an early exit from the playoffs.