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Analysis: Goaltending, D key Miami win

OXFORD, Ohio – Five minutes in, it looked like a bad Friday night was in store for Miami and its fans.

RedHawks senior goalie Ryan McKay allowed a weak shot from Western Michigan’s Paul Stokyewych to slip through his legs for the first goal of the game after Miami dominated play to that point.

But the RedHawks bounced back from the early deficit to beat the Broncos, 2-1 at Cady Arena.

Miami goalie Ryan McKay (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami goalie Ryan McKay (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

McKay looked shaky through the first period and didn’t appear to see the puck well, but he was an absolute rock the final 40 minutes, especially the last 20 when the team needed him most.

And that’s exactly what Miami needs every night right now.

Including the two goals tonight, the RedHawks have scored three times in three games and are averaging just 2.00 markers per game. They have not netted more than three in any contest this season.

Right now it’s freshmen Jack Roslovic and Josh Melnick and the defense corps, believe it or not, scoring for Miami. That’s it.

Miami's Jack Roslovic (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami’s Jack Roslovic (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Think that’s an exaggeration? Forwards not named Roslovic and Melnick have scored a total of four goals through the team’s first nine games and one in the last five.

This is not to doom-and-gloom a win, because the offense will get better. And the RedHawks have a highly-experienced defense corps and senior goaltending tandem who all knew what they were getting into this season with severe losses up front.

Other thoughts…

– For a game with only three goals scored, it was highly entertaining. Miami played great the first period, so well there was almost no need for the Zamboni to scrape the RedHawks’ end after the first intermission. MU played pretty well in the second as well and not as great in the final stanza, but overall deserved this win.

– Western Michigan is much better than in 2014-15. This was my first look at the Broncos this season after seeing them play Miami seven times last season, and they move the puck better, play even better defense and have better offensive weapons. The goaltending was also exemplary on Friday. The win for the RedHawks was quality, and a sweep will be difficult to accomplish but meaningful if they do.

– Miami coach Enrico Blasi is not only shaking up the forward lines but the defensive pairings as well. He broke up top pairing senior Matthew Caito and sophomore Louie Belpedio, possibly because Belpedio hasn’t stepped up from his freshman campaign as hoped and expected. The forward line of Andrew Schmit-Josh Melnick-Anthony Louis played well together, and the Ryan Siroky-Kiefer Sherwood-Conor Lemirande line was also solid despite the former two being freshmen and the latter being a sophomore.

– There were just seven total penalties called – two of which were coincidental – in a game that was very physical early with some plays bordering on illegal, so expect another hard-hitting game on Saturday with stickwork and hits that might cross the line at times.

– The crowd fell a hair short of 3,000, which is disappointing, but it was a loud group that created a solid home atmosphere.

– Friday was the first attempt at a fan tunnel down the hall where Miami’s players come onto the ice for introductions, and we were fortunate enough to participate. This was a very cool concept that is in its infancy and has room to evolve. Certain season ticket holders and some students were chosen to stand right next to red carpet on which the players walk to reach the ice. It appeared to go very well.

GRADES

FORWARDS: B. The two goals scream “here we go again with little offense”, but some credit belongs to the WMU D-corps, which is relentless at getting sticks in lanes, and Broncos goalie Collin Olson, who was 36-for-38. As mentioned above, a couple of line combinations worked really well. Roslovic’s goal was just sick, as no goalie in the NHL would’ve stood a chance to stop it, and the Schmit-Melnick goal was a beautiful thing to watch. It felt like these guys were on the right track, at least for this game.

DEFENSEMEN: B+. Neither team had a clear-cut odd-man break until the third period, but Miami had a blueline breakdown on a power play that led to a breakaway (which McKay stopped). It was a makeshift man-advantage unit with Caito and senior Taylor Richart on defense. There was also a point in that frame in which a WMU forward was left completely alone in the slot and fortunately for the RedHawks missed the net with his ensuing shot. It looked like sophomore Scott Dornbrock left his post on that play. But that was it in terms of quality chances. Caito has made numerous obvious shut-down defensive plays recently, and with two seconds left in regulation he went down to block a centering feed that could’ve led to the tying goal. Chris Joyaux is off to a great start to his senior campaign as well and played with Belpedio in this game.

GOALTENDING: A-. The first goal was bad, no doubt. But McKay stopped the next 23, including a breakaway to pick up his 33rd career win. His first 20 minutes were a bit shaky, but when he saw more action he got better. It bears repeating: If this team is going to have success early this season it needs strong goaltending in addition to quality defense. For the most part it got both on Friday.

Defenseman Taylor Richart (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Defenseman Taylor Richart (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

LINEUP CHANGES: Richart was out for both games last weekend (banged up?) but returned for this game. He’s become a staple on defense and his presence is missed when he doesn’t play. Colin Sullivan was the odd man out on D in this game. Forwards Michael Mooney and Devin Loe both sat for the second straight game. McKay returned to net after senior Jay Williams started the finale in St. Cloud. McKay has played in eight of Miami’s nine games.

Frosh goals key Miami win over WMU

OXFORD, Ohio – Miami’s freshmen helped lead the RedHawks to their first conference win of the season, 2-1 over Western Michigan at Cady Arena on Friday.

After Miami (4-4-1) fell behind by a goal early, forward Jack Roslovic tied the score and forward Josh Melnick put the RedHawks ahead, as the team made its one-goal lead stand up.

The win snapped a three-game losing streak for Miami, which improved to 1-2 in NCHC play.

RedHawks goalie Ryan McKay stopped 23 shots to earn the win, but the night didn’t start well for the senior. The first shot he faced from Paul Stokyewych at 4:46 of the first period slipped through McKay’s legs.

Just over three minutes later, Roslovic made it 1-1 when he rammed a one time pass from sophomore defenseman Louie Belpedio through the slot just under the crossbar on the power play.

Miami's Josh Melnick (right) scores the game-winning goal (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami’s Josh Melnick (right) scores the game-winning goal (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Melnick slammed home a short pass from senior Andrew Schmit on a rush midway through the second period to put Miami ahead.

After seeing just four shots in the first period and eight in the second, McKay was peppered with 12 shots on goal in the final stanza, including a breakaway that he denied by stacking the pads. The shot total was 16-4 RedHawks after one period and ended 38-24 in favor of MU.

The RedHawks killed both of WMU’s power plays and are now 97.0 percent on the penalty kill (32 of 33), the fifth-best rate in the country and second among teams that have faced at least 10 man-advantage opportunities.

Miami junior forward Anthony Louis earned assists on both goals. The goal for Roslovic was his team-high sixth of the season. He had the game winners in the first three RedHawks victories, and with Melnick earned the GWG in this game, freshman have game winners in all Miami wins.

With the victory, McKay moves into solo control of ninth place on the team’s all-time list with 33, including four this season. He is one away from Trevor Prior, who is eighth on the RedHawks’ career leaderboard with 34.

It was the first NCHC loss for Western Michigan (4-3-1), which is still winless on the road at 0-3-1.

Miami moved into a three-way tie with Denver and Nebraska-Omaha for fourth in the NCHC with three points.

The RedHawks and Broncos will wrap up their weekend series at 7:05 p.m. on Saturday.

Miami facing rejuvenated WMU

Miami has lost its last three games, all on the road, including its last two at St. Cloud State in its NCHC opening series.

The RedHawks scored just one goal at SCSU.

Miami (3-4-1) is back home this weekend and will face a Western Michigan team it eliminated from the NCHC Tournament last season in a best-of-3 series at Cady Arena.

The Broncos (4-2-1) swept Omaha to open NCHC play last weekend and has not suffered a similar offensive impotence, scoring 10 goals in the weekend series.

WMU’s top points producer to this point is Colt Conrad, a freshman who has a goal and six assists in six games.

Griffen Molino and Sheldon Dries have posted six points each, both having two goals and four helpers. Molino is also a freshman.

Kyle Novak is having a breakout season, going 3-2-5 after tallying just 10 points in 2014-15. Nolan LaPorte is another offensive threat for WMU, with four points in five games and 57 for his career.

The Broncos have a very young defense corps, with two freshmen, three sophomores and no seniors.

Both Western Michigan goalies have been solid, with Lukas Hafner notching a .932 save percentage and a 2.21 goals-against average, and Collin Olsen going .926 and 2.34.

WMU’s special teams have been outstanding, as the team is 24.1 percent on the power play, 14th in NCAA, and the Broncos’ penalty killing is 86.5 percent.

And Western Michigan has had a lot of practice on the PK, as the team is averaging over 12 penalty minutes per game.

WMU finished seventh in the eight-team NCHC last season, but it looks like it has a solid freshman class and should be a lot more competitive in conference play.

While the Broncos have had success early this season, they have yet to prove themselves on the road. While they are 4-0 at home, they have an 0-2-1 record outside of Kalamazoo.

“It’s Go Time” – Western Michigan at #5 Miami

Question: Is there anything better than playoff hockey?

Answer: No.

The last time WMU and Miami met, it was under the stars at the Hockey City Classic in Chicago.

Now that we’ve established that, the fifth ranked and second seeded Miami RedHawks (21-12-1, 14-9-1-1 2nd NCHC) are back at home for the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season when they needed three games to dispatch Michigan State en route to the final CCHA championship weekend at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. They will face an old CCHA foe and MAC rival in seventh seeded Western Michigan. The Broncos (13-16-5, 6-13-5-4 7th NCHC) trail the tightly contested all-time series 56-60-11 and went 0-3-1 vs the RedHawks with the only non-loss coming in Kalamazoo a weekend before the Hockey City Classic in Chicago. In that game, Miami led 4-0 after two periods before hanging on to post a 4-3 victory at Soldier Field.

In Oxford, it was a more pleasing storyline as the RedHawks swept the Broncos by 1-0 and 5-2 scores and you never really got the feeling that WMU could challenge Miami offensively. Hopefully we’ll see even more offense this weekend after watching Miami put up 44 shots against North Dakota in a 2-1 loss Friday last before putting six goals on the board against likely NCHC Player of the Year, Zane “Five Spot” McIntyre who trolled the Blog of Brotherhood on Twitter.

What did he do?

He “favorited” our tweet predicting a Miami sweep of UND last weekend. The problem was that he did it after UND won game one by the narrowest of margins when a fluke goal decided the outcome.

Of course he then laid an egg on Saturday surrendering a “five spot” to the RedHawks in a 6-3 Miami victory.

Zane “Five Spot” McIntyre trolled the Blog of Brotherhood last weekend. The problem? Five goals against on Saturday night.

If you’re going to troll, at least do it before the game. And, if not, you might consider backing up the trolling with decent play. Either way, not good.

Anyway, back to this weekend.

Miami enters the NCHC playoffs as the second seed nearly pulling off a “worst to first” story. As it is, Miami turned the tables on last year’s 8th place finish on the strength of a 2nd place effort in the regular season. They built upon last season’s successful NCHC playoff run which ended in the inaugural NCHC championship game where they fell to Denver ending up a mere goal short of a ninth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. This year, an NCAA appearance is all but certain as playoffstatus.com shows the RedHawks as having a 99% chance of reaching the tournament even with two losses this weekend.

Last weekend Miami dropped a close one on Friday before Austin Czarnik went off on Senior Night recording four points on the back of his first career hat trick (including two shorthanded goals) to lead the RedHawks to a dominating 6-3 victory over North Dakota. Jay Williams had goaltending duty and played well on Friday save the first goal by UND, which was an ugly, harmless shot from the corner that he inexplicably misplayed. Ryan McKay had the net Saturday and played well enough to win but I think we definitely see Williams tomorrow. Depending on how game one goes, and based on his play, we could see him again on Saturday night.

Western Michigan is led offensively by three players with 10 or more goals. Colton Hargrove (12-13-25, 72 PIM), Sheldon Dries (13-12-25) and Nolan LaPorte (10-12-22, 89 PIM). On

Kenny Morrison is highly regarded as a potential NHL free agent.

the blueline, Kenny Morrison (5-10-15) is well-regarded and has been mentioned as a possible early departure risk as NHL scouts are circling the would-be free agent.

In net, Lukas Hafner has had a good season including last Saturday’s shutout of #6 Minnesota-Duluth in Kalamazoo. Hafner (11-11-5, 2.35, .916) took the reins from senior Frank “The Big” Slubowski last season and has played the majority of the minutes in the WMU net this year. He has the talent to keep WMU in these games and could even steal one if Miami isn’t getting traffic in front and pucks to the net. Like last weekend, Miami should attempt to make these games up and down affairs and fire more than 40 SOG to wear down the Broncos and their netminder.

Interestingly, the Broncos have four players with 50 or more PIM this year with three of those four having 70 or more. In contrast, Miami has just one, senior Blake Coleman (80 PIM) so this will definitely be a clash of styles. WMU likes to muck it up and play in your face using their size and physicality. That said, they feature uber-goon Mike McKee who is really worse than a goon. He’s a cheap, dirty player. Miami will have to keep their composure because WMU head coach Andy Murray will want his guys in the faces of Miami’s talented and smallish forwards.

Overall, this is a very good matchup for Miami on paper. While I believe Hafner could steal a game for the Broncos, I don’t see it happening. I think Miami will take care of business in two tightly contested games. MIAMI SWEEPS.

Frozen Faceoff — We have questions…

It’s a huge weekend for the NCHC.

As the song “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons goes, “Welcome to the new age.”

As the inaugural season of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference comes to a close, we are left with the inevitability of a new gathering of college hockey fans at new venues in new cities. It it officially the blending of the old — the WCHA’s Final Five as represented by North Dakota and Denver with the CCHA’s “Hockey in the D” being repped by Miami and Western Michigan. And, with both the WCHA having been relegated to second tier status playing their tournament in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the Joe being empty of college hockey this weekend, it does seem that we are certainly moving on.

But, what have we learned this year? And, was it better? Will it be?

Did fans fawn over new and existing rivalries? Was the action so riveting in the NCHC (and the Big 6) that all of this was really necessary?

Sadly, I believe the answer is “not quite yet.”

While the on-ice product during the regular was at best a “meh,” the playoff action in the NCHC has thus far been fascinating with three “lower seeds” moving on to compete in the Frozen Faceoff this weekend in Minneapolis. Of course, those lower seeds included 7-time national champions Denver, 2012 Mason Cup champions Western Michigan and 2012 CCHA regular season champions Miami.

Not exactly “lower seed material.” But, this season has certainly proved that someone has to finish last in a highly competitive league. This year it was Miami, but they of course promptly dispatched the first ever Penrose Cup champions, St. Cloud State, in two games.

But, it’s certainly clear the NCHC has much riding on this weekend.

Minneapolis’ Target Center selection as the venue for the NCHC’s Frozen Faceoff raises questions.

First, the venue. The Target Center is a facility with one full-time tenant, the Minnesota Timberwolves of the NBA. Yep, it’s a basketball facility first and foremost. The last time the WCHA held a Final Five tournament there, in 2000, there were catcalls from many who attended saying it’s not a good venue to host the sport. I can’t speak to the hockey games (if any) that have been held there since, but some are saying improvements to the facility bode well for the weekend. It would be a nice-to-have if the NCHC doesn’t have to endure heat over the selection of Target Center, but the location in downtown Minneapolis, is superb.

Second, attendance. You know former Miami man and NCHC commish Josh Fenton has to be breathing a huge sigh of relief that North Dakota was able to overcome the challenge from Colorado College to earn a trip to the Frozen Faceoff. As it is, the three dance partners add very little in terms of a traveling fan base. Denver is simply too far away and they don’t even draw 50 students to their regular season games at Magness Arena. As for Miami and Western Michigan, it remains to be seen. Western had traveled well to the Joe the past few years, but that’s all of a two-hour drive from Kalamazoo. I might ordinarily suggest that they would have more fans than Miami this weekend, but with the basketball Broncos earning a berth (and being blown out by Syracuse right now) in the NCAA tournament, that might have picked off some of their fans.

Speaking of the red and white, we all know we have a fan base that’s reluctant to travel, and in a year that saw Miami finish dead last in the regular season, and with the NCAA tournament regional being hosted by Miami in Cincinnati, I have to believe most fans will simply wait it out. If Miami wins the weekend, they’ll attend next weekend in our backyard. If not, well, at least they got to watch the games on CBS Sports Network.

Will NCAA hockey venues look a lot like Florida Panthers’ games this weekend?

Assuming North Dakota brings 5,000-7,000 fans and you get 1,000-2,000 from DU, MU and WMU, plus another 3,000 or so who are fans of other Minnesota NCHC schools or just college hockey fans, maybe, maybe we could see 10,000 in the building. Anything more than that would be fantastic but unrealistic, especially considering the Big 10 tournament is being held in nearby St. Paul and features the home squad, Minnesota.

But, that brings about another thought. The old WCHA would jam the Xcel Energy Center to see Minnesota, North Dakota, SCSU, UMD and Wisconsin go toe to toe. Now, the WCHA will draw, maybe, 5,000 for their games at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids for Anchorage, Minnesota State, Bowling Green and Ferris State from nearby Big Rapids who you’d think will have by far the most fans in attendance. And, as I write this, I’m watching Michigan and Penn State play in front what appears to be a crowd of three people at Xcel right now. When the CCHA would hold its tournament weekend in Detroit, you always knew Michigan would bring between 10,000-15,000 fans for their games, regardless of the time. And, when Michigan and Michigan State would play, the building would be full.

What to make of all this?

Well, it seems we had it pretty good, and I’m hopeful Xcel will be full when Minnesota and Wisconsin come calling. One thing is certain, Hockey East is making out like a bandit as their league changed the least and only strengthened itself with the addition of Notre Dame who has also had to adjust to a quite a bit more travel — and it showed with their eighth place finish in the regular season but it advanced by knocking off the #1 seed — sound familiar? And, the ECAC has not yet been touched by realignment so things were as they always had been. Consistency has its advantages.

Lastly, the quality of the hockey. I’m beginning to formulate a theory that Miami, despite its defensive shortcomings might just be a tired bunch. I have no way to know for sure, but I wonder if the impact of all the extra travel the team has had to do this year, and not just the travel from Oxford to Denver as an example, but I wonder if all the extra bus rides, transfers and equipment hauling has taken a toll? I wonder if any of this

Will Miami be on the defensive against North Dakota or will they have the same jump we saw last weekend against St. Cloud?

has affected any of the other schools? Denver and Colorado College are obviously exempt because they have had to fly everywhere for years. But for the other programs, were all the extra flights, bus rides and shuttles as draining as they appear to have been on the RedHawks? Bus rides from St. Cloud to Madison were replaced by flights to Kalamazoo. And, that speaks nothing for travel costs which were obviously much higher for Miami and Western Michigan, especially, than they had ever been. So, will Miami have anything left after back to back trips to Denver and St. Cloud? We understand they stayed in Minnesota all week, but that has to take a toll on bodies at this point in a hockey season nutritionally, sleep-wise, workouts and recovery, everything. Will they be able to muster the energy required to take on North Dakota and its fans?

So, the real question…is all of this sustainable?

We are already beginning to hear whispers that another round of realignment is forthcoming. Perhaps inevitable. And, how does Alabama-Huntsville really continue to field a Division I program? Will college hockey continue in Alaska now that they are kind of “isolated together?” Is the Big 6 plan sustainable? Will they have to add other Big 10 schools to make this interesting? Will they pressure the Illinois’ and Indiana’s of the world to step up? And, will the schools of the “like-minded” NCHC decide that maybe this whole thing wasn’t so great after all? Will the WCHA have the last laugh should the NCHC dissolve?

Whatever happens, it might not be good for college hockey. If this year is any predictor of the future, the game really didn’t seem to advance all that much. Well, at least not quite yet.

NCHC Frozen Faceoff – Miami v. North Dakota

It’s truly is the most wonderful time of the year!

With the NCAA basketball tournament starting in earnest today and NCAA hockey’s conference tournaments hitting full stride, this weekend is one of my most favorite sports weekends of the year.

Miami is unaccustomed to looking up in the standings, but they did this year.

Miami is unaccustomed to looking up in the standings, but they did this year.

And, in case you haven’t been paying attention, Miami is once again in the thick of it. But this time, the tables have been turned on the RedHawks. After a sub-par regular season that most certainly did not meet expectations, Miami decided to come together last weekend in St. Cloud upending

the Penrose Cup champions in a two-game weekend series sweep. Yet, Miami will not earn a berth to its ninth consecutive NCAA tournament without winning two more games this weekend.

First up? North Dakota.

A team that as recently as February 14-15 defeated Miami 3-2 in a game UND led 3-0 and then handed the RedHawks  a 9-2 whipping the likes of which this program hadn’t seen since the 1990s. The teams split their series in Oxford way back in October with North Dakota winning 4-2 and then Miami dishing out a 6-2 whipping of their own a night later.

However, the lost weekend in Grand Forks perhaps began to ignite a little spark in the RedHawks.

Buoyed by the return of Blake Coleman, Miami would begin to play a little better. Splits in two of the next three series marked by incrementally better play defensively and in net, set Miami up with a chance to go into St. Cloud and knock off the Huskies. Miami had split both regular season series with SCSU so last weekend’s outcome wasn’t all that surprising.

Miami is still not there yet.

Blake Coleman’s return from injury has given the RedHawks a spark.

If they have any dreams of winning the NCHC conference tournament and advancing to the NCAA tournament, they will have to find a way to shore up defensive lapses that have plagued the team all season. Dennis Green’s famous quote, “they are what we thought they were” most definitely applies here. As much as we’d like to think this team is better than it really is, the fact is they have played as poor defensively as a club as any Miami team in recent memory, and despite having all kinds of offensive talent, it still might not be enough. What’s clear is they are not going to win too many 2-1 games. But, if the offense can get to four, Miami will have a real chance to win two games this weekend and carry the dream forward.

That said, Miami will have to get past a team that has rounded into arguably the best team in the NCHC and one with a significant home-ice advantage tomorrow night in North Dakota. Gang Green (I don’t know what to call them) has one of the best traveling fan bases in all of college sports and you can figure they will have an overwhelming number of supporters all weekend long. But, rooting for the underdog, and against North Dakota, is always chic. I expect those in attendance from UMD, UMTC, SCSU and others to pull for the RedHawks and maybe just give them a little boost. The crowd will most certainly get behind Miami should they take the lead or keep it close.

And, I do believe this will be a close game.

Coleman’s return gives Miami four complete lines and gives head coach Enrico Blasi the abilty to split up snipers Riley Barber and Austin Czarnik pairing either Coleman or Sean Kuraly with them. Then with Alex Gacek, Alex Wideman and Cody Murphy set to offer scoring ability throughout the lineup, it does make Miami more difficult to defend. There is an awful lot of offensive talent on this team which simply makes this season that more perplexing. One theory I have, and that I’ll get into in another piece, is that Miami was unprepared for the toll that the new travel schedule would take on the team.

Anyway, this weekend rests on the shoulders of the offense. But, if Miami can get decent contributions from the blueline (in terms of clearing rebounds, playing without turnovers and making smart plays up the ice) and if Ryan McKay can be in top form, there’s reason to believe Miami can win two games this weekend and move on.

At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

22 Days to Go! Welcome to the NCHC, Part 1

As we start our 2013-14 preseason coverage, we introduce you to the new conference. The National Collegiate Hockey Conference should prove to be a whale of a conference to play in for many years. Outside of college hockey, you may not know that these schools are power houses. You may not have even heard of some of the schools without ties to Miami hockey. Here’s the first portion of our intro to the teams of the NCHC.

Read the rest of this entry

#3 Miami at #6 Western Michigan

First place Miami clashes with second place Western Michigan in the nation’s premiere weekend series

It’s a #MACAttack weekend as long-time MAC rivals Miami (17-6-5, 12-4-4-4 1st CCHA) and Western Michigan (17-6-5, 13-4-3-1 2nd CCHA) renew their hockey rivalry that’s heated up over the past two years. The schools have met twice at Joe Louis Arena in the CCHA tournament over the past two seasons.

Two years ago, Miami defeated the upstart Broncos in the CCHA title game to capture the program’s only Mason Cup, while last year, the Broncos returned the favor in the semifinals en route to their first Mason Cup championship. However, during the regular season, Miami swept Western in Oxford.

It has to be especially heartening to new NCHC commissioner Jim Scherr to see the two CCHA squads at the top of the league just 8 months from the inaugural puck drop for the new league.

But, to the weekend at hand…

10 goals last weekend? And, 15 over their past four games? Could it be that Miami’s offense is finally waking up at precisely the right time? With just 8 regular season games left, the time is now for this team to find its offensive game, keep playing stout defense and come together down the stretch.

Well, the stretch starts tonight in Kalamazoo where Miami will face it’s most difficult road series of the year at Western Michigan and the Lawson Lunatics, whom, to put it mildly, comprise the most vulgar “rowdiest” student section in all of college hockey. And, we poke fun because it’s true in both good ways and bad.

Leading the charge for the Broncos is a familiar cast of characters led by senior Dane Walters who leads WMU with 21 points (12-9-21) and junior Chase Balisy with 20 (8-12-20). Western’s power play is best in the league at 22.9 percent but it will be without junior powerplay specialist Dennis Brown (1-13-14) who was suspended for tonight’s game following Saturday night’s shootout loss against Ferris State. Additionally, the Broncos will be without two other players including injured sophomore defenseman Garrett Haar (3-3-6), who scored a goal in the CCHA semifinal win over the RedHawks, and sophomore forward Justin Kovacs (1-5-6) who was also suspended following the Ferris State game.

In net for Western will be “The Big Slubowski,” sophomore Frank Slubowski who has started every game this season for the Broncos. Slubowski, a finalist for last season’s CCHA Rookie of the Year, has returned with a vengence notching 16 wins, a 1.78 GAA and .922 save percentage so far. It goes without saying that beating Slubowski will be challenging for Miami, a team that has struggled to score this year.

For the RedHawks, well, expect more of the same.

The top line has to continue to execute and carry the team offensively. In moving sophomore forward Alex Wideman alongside sophomore center Austin Czarnik and freshman forward Riley Barber, head coach Enrico Blasi has gone for speed and creativity out of his top three. This has enabled players like Blake Coleman, Curtis McKenzie and Sean Kuraly to use their blend of speed and size to give Miami a more balanced and dynamic top six look.

Defensively, the RedHawks lead the nation in total defense and freshmen goaltenders Jay Williams and Ryan McKay will be tested, not so much by Western’s offensive prowess, but rather to keep their composure on the road in a rink that is difficult to play in. This will be an excellent test for Miami and if they are fortunate to split this weekend’s series, that would be huge as we move toward the playoffs.

Notes

– Miami is coming off its second straight CCHA sweep as the RedHawks downed then No. 20 Alaska, 4-1 last Friday before completing the sweep, 6-2, on Saturday and have won 5 straight overall. (source: MURedHawks.com)

– Western enters the series on a five-game unbeaten streak going 4-0-1 during that stretch including a sweep of 8th place Michigan (it ain’t what it used to be). Last weekend the Broncos won at Ferris State, 3-1 on Friday before dropping a shootout to Ferris on Saturday. (source: MURedHawks.com)

Miami/Western game time confirmed

This morning, the CCHA announced that Miami and Western Michigan will faceoff at 4:35pm EST on Friday at Joe Louis Arena in the first semifinal of the weekend. That means Bowling Green and Michigan will play at approximately 8pm Friday night to maximize both attendance in the rink and on television. Both games will be televised by FOX Sports Detroit PLUS with Saturday’s championship game on FOX Sports Detroit.

Miami to face Western Michigan in CCHA semifinals

With Bowling Green’s come-from-behind victory over Ferris State earlier this evening, it means the RedHawks will face Western Michigan in a rematch of last year’s Mason Cup Championship game in (likely) the first semifinal game Friday afternoon at 4pm. The Falcon victory means former Miami players and coaches Chris Bergeron and Barry Schutte will take the orange and brown to Joe Louis Arena for the first time since 2001.

Earlier this year, Miami swept the Broncos 3-1 and 4-0 in Oxford. However, Western played the series without two top players — Dane Walters and Shane Berschbach — and presumably the Broncos will be at full strength on Friday afternoon.

Frankly, I don’t think anyone really cared whether Miami drew Ferris State or Western Michigan — at least I didn’t. With the way Miami is playing, they only need worry about themselves and continue to do the things that have propelled the club steadily upward throughout the second half of the season. Miami is playing its best hockey of the year at precisely the right time. Let’s hope they have another good weekend left in them as they prepare for the NCAA tournament.