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#9 Miami at Western Michigan

WMU’s Lawson Ice Arena is a great old barn.

In an odd “home” series, Western Michigan (11-10-3, 4-7-3-3 7th NCHC) will host #9 Miami (15-9, 8-6 T4th NCHC) in Kalamazoo tonight and again next Saturday in Chicago as Miami once again will go outside to play at the Hockey City Classic for the second time in three years.

Earlier this season, Miami swept a home NCHC series in Oxford by 1-0 and 5-2 scores while the Broncos were really struggling. But, Andy Murray’s squad has faired much better over the past several weeks going 8-2-2 over its past 12 games including a demolition of defending national champion Union in the Shillelagh Tournament in South Bend, Ind.

For Miami, these are two incredibly important games.

I suppose every game down the stretch for the RedHawks is important as they struggle to maintain a top four league finish and secure home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

What’s clear is Miami has a very difficult schedule down the stretch and they’ll have to perform much better if they want to challenge for a regular season title — or at this point — a top four finish in the very competitive NCHC.

The Broncos are a big, physical team. Most fans, coaches and pundits call WMU an “awful team to play against.” As they have gotten more confident in themselves, and head coach Andy Murray’s system, the wins have come.

Offensively, the Broncos are led by senior forward Justin Kovacs (4-16-20) and junior forwards Colton Hargrove (10-9-19) and Nolan LaPorte (9-10-19). Junior defenseman Kenny Morrison (5-8-13) and junior goaltender Lukas Hafner (10-7-3, 2.13, .922) form the backbone of a Bronco team that has surrendered just 28 goals in the past 12

Junior Lukas Hafner has had an outstanding year for Western Michigan.

games. Of note is that WMU was blown out 7-0 by SCSU a few weeks ago. If you remove that game, it’s just 21 goals in 11 games. Needless to say, the WMU defense has been playing well which is a bad sign given Miami’s almost incredible inability to manufacture goals. Over the past nine games, Miami has netted only 21 goals which is a dismal 46th in the country during that stretch. (source: MURedHawks.com)

As stated, this brutal run to the finish began last weekend. Miami stands 1-1 in the series of games that will largely determine their post-season fate. Miami has had difficulty winning important games and with Western Michigan perhaps in an even more desperate mode, I do not see Miami winning tonight but I do see a bounce-back in Chicago next weekend. Still, Miami really needs a sweep here. Will they have enough to rise to the occasion?

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Weekend Preview: CCHA Semifinals and Finals

This weekend marks the final weekend of conference play in all of college hockey, with the final positioning for the NCAA tournament at stake and conference championships waiting to be won. Your 4th seeded and defending Mason Cup Champion Miami RedHawks take to the ice at 4:35 pm Friday afternoon against the #3 seed Western Michigan Broncos in the first CCHA Semifinal and #2 seed Michigan takes on the #11 seed Bowling Green in the late game.

Semifinal 1: #3 Western Michigan vs. #4 Miami 4:35
TV: Fox Sports – Ohio (DirecTV 660), Fox Sports Detroit Plus (DirecTV 664 SD, 664-1 HD) and Fox College Sports-Atlantic (it’s out there somewhere)

This season, the Broncos and RedHawks faced off twice, and Miami took both games in Oxford by scores of 3-1 and 4-0. Connor Knapp started both games and  made 48 out of 49 saves on the weekend, and Reilly Smith started his torrid second-half streak with a hat trick on Friday night, and added another goal on Saturday night.

On Friday, expect to see a showdown of Knapp, a senior, and Rookie of the year candidate Frank (the big) Slubowski in opposing nets. Knapp, as we know, has been absolutely on fire in 2012. Here’s the low-down on Knapp’s unbelievable season from muredhawks.com:

  • Connor has not allowed an even-strength goal since Feb. 4, 2012 against Michigan, a span of seven starts.
  • In those 7 games: four goals allowed, all on the power play.
  • Knapp has allowed one or fewer goals in 13 of his last 15 games, during which he has a 0.89 goals against average and .964 save percentage (since the start of 2012).
  • Knapp leads the NCAA with a 1.43 GAA and is second in save percentage at .943.
  • His 5 shutouts this year (all since 1/7/12) are a career high, and he broke the school’s career shutouts record with his 13th last Friday.
Slubowski, on the other hand, has been WMU Head Coach Andy Murray’s goaltender of choice this season, compiling a 15-10-4 record, and a stingy 2.03 Goals Against Average. The Big Slubowski, as he is nicknamed by his teammates, joins teammate Garrett Haar (Defense) and Miami’s Austin Czarnik on the CCHA All-Rookie team this season, and is a finalist with Czarnik and Michigan’s Alex Guptill for the conference’s Rookie of the Year Award.

Miami comes in with an 8-game winning streak, second longest in the nation to Boston College who has won 13 straight contests. In those games, Miami has outscored their opponents 32-5. Western Michigan is unbeaten in its last 4 games, including a win and a tie against the previously bounced Ferris State Bulldogs, and last weekend’s sweep of Lake Superior State in round 2.  While the Friday game is the first time Miami and WMU have met in the CCHA Semifinals, it is a rematch of the CCHA Championship game from 2011, a contest won handily by the RedHawks for Miami’s first Mason Cup title.

More notes for the weekend:

  • Reilly Smith is carrying an 8 game point streak into this weekend. He had previously scored goals in 7 straight until Saturday night’s game. He continues to lead the NCAA with 8 game winners and is second in the NCAA with 27 goals scored.
  • Jimmy Mullin has scored in 5 straight games – his career long – and has 11 points in those games.
  • Western Michigan Head Coach Andy Murray will coach in his 22nd game at Joe Louis Arena in Friday’s CCHA Semifinals. As a head coach of the Los Angeles Kings he went 1-9-1 against in Joe Louis Arena, with the lone win coming as a playoff series clinching victory over the Red Wings in 2001. (Source: wmubroncos.com)
  • Miami will want to stay out of the penalty box this weekend. WMU is 3 for 5 on the power play during the CCHA playoffs, and were performing at a 20.1% clip in the regular season. Miami’s penalty kill stands at 6th in the nation at 85.9% of penalties successfully killed, and also ranks 6th with 16.4 penalty minutes per game.
  • As the games go final on the weekend, keep your eye on USCHO’s PairWise rankings. Miami sits tied with Boston University for the #4 spot at this moment, meaning if  the season had ended and today we were watching the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, Miami would be a #1 seed. After every final score of the weekend, these standings are going to jostle ever so slightly, and almost every game is important.
  • Senior Goalie Cody Reichard was named one of 5 finalists for the NCAA’s Wooden Citizenship Cup. The award is  presented annually to two distinguished athletes, one collegiate and one professional, for their character and leadership both on and off the field and their contributions to sport and society. (source: muredhawks.com)
  • For your reading pleasure, check out USCHO blogger Elliot Olshansky’s Hobey Baker picks for 2012, where he picks Reilly Smith as a finalist.
  • And for your viewing pleasure, take a gander at the CCHA’s 20 Questions with Miami Senior Defenseman Chris Wideman, and their CCHA Now feature for 3/14/12.

Semifinal 2: #11 Bowling Green vs. #2 Michigan; approx 8:05PM Eastern
TV: Fox Sports-Detroit Plus, and Fox College Sports-Atlantic

Coming off of a 2-1 series victory over Northern Michigan 2 weekends ago, Bowling Green got 5 more goals from Freshman Dan DeSalvo and took down top-seeded Ferris State in dramatic fashion last weekend. Ferris State led 3-0 after 1 period of play in Sunday’s round 2 finale, but 4 straight goals from the Fighting Chris Bergerons, and they move on to Detroit for the first time since 2001. Consider these facts about BG’s improbable run:

  • BG was the first team to win a playoff series from the last place seed in 2011. They repeated that feat in 2012, and in doing so, knocked off the #6 and #1 seeds in the CCHA tournament in the process
  • BG won 5 CCHA conference games all season, and have now won 4 of their last 6 in the tournament. Throw in a win over Michigan in the last series of the season, and they’re 5-3 in the last 3 weeks of play
  • Freshman Dan DeSalvo scored 4 goals all season in 17 games, and missed the last 4 games of the season with an injury. Against NMU, he had 5 goals in the 3 game series, and he scored another 5 in the three games against Ferris State.
  • DeSalvo scored the first hat trick for BG since Jan. 18, 2008, and DeSalvo’s 10 playoff goals are already a new CCHA Tournament record, with 2 more games to play.
The primetime matchup of Friday night is sure to be a crowd pleaser, and we’d just love it if BG were able to pull of the upset of Michigan. Just 3 weeks ago, BG took down Michigan at the BGSU ice rink in a 4-3 decision, so it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility to think that BG could advance to the CCHA Championship win a win on Friday night.

Third place game: The losers of the semifinal games will meet at 3:35PM Eastern Saturday.

CCHA Championship game: winners of the 2 semifinal games, 7:35PM Saturday; Fox Sports-Detroit, Fox Sports-Ohio (Alternate channel)

If you’re looking for your hockey fix tonight and can’t wait until tomorrow, catch 3 future Miami conference-mates in action from the WCHA’s Final Five tournament (that consists 6 teams). Denver takes on Michigan Tech at 3:07 Eastern today and St. Cloud State takes on North Dakota at 8:07 Eastern. You can catch both with the “sports packages” on Fox Sports-North (DirecTV ch. 668) out of St. Paul, Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center tonight.

After all the dust settles on the entire weekend, jump over to ESPNU on Sunday at high noon. John Buccigross, Barry Melrose and Aaron Ward will announce the NCAA Tournament Field on the NCAA Hockey Selection Show, and we’ll find out exactly where Miami is heading for its first round NCAA tournament game.

Update: WMU and SCSU Officially Accept Invitations to NCHC

 

Well, that didn’t take long. 

After officially extending invitations to the schools on Wednesday, the NCHC became a reality for the Western Michigan Broncos and St. Cloud State Huskies on Thursday.  This brings the total schools welcomed into the NCHC up to 8, and gives Miami a conference rival of sorts in Western Michigan, having spent the last 31 years in the CCHA together (WMU has been in the CCHA since the 1975-76 season and Miami joined for the 1980-81 campaign).

Miami Athletic Director Brad Bates was present to welcome the Broncos with WMU director of Athletics Kathy Beauregard providing the big news to local media.

St. Cloud State University President Dr. Earl Potter announced the Huskies are joining the NCHC, and looks forward to “forming new partners with Miami and Western Michigan.”

As far as these two teams go, Miami has a slight 51-49-9 edge all time against Western Michigan, and a solid 7-1-1 record against the Huskies.

Report: WMU, SCSU Expected to Join NCHC

Curious…

That would be my immediate reaction to reports by both College Hockey News and USCHO that Western Michigan University and St. Cloud State University are expected to join the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference that will start play in 2013-14. According to reports, both schools will be invited by week’s end. Both websites cited separate sources with CHN naming the Grand Forks Herald and USCHO citing the Kalamazoo Gazette.

So, what does this mean for Notre Dame?

I think it means they are going to play as an independent while their administration very likely considers a new conference for their other sports as the dramatic changes in college athletics continue. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Notre Dame join either the Big 10 or the ACC for all sports. Of course, only the Big 10 helps the Irish (why Notre Dame gets away with using “Fighting Irish” and others like North Dakota are crucified for using “Fighting Sioux” is beyond me, but a story for another day) on the ice so things are going to be more difficult for them until the situation is resolved.

Notre Dame has committed to announcing a “decision” within 10 days.

As for the NCHC, the addition of Western Michigan makes all the sense in the world. Heavy commitment to hockey, Division I in all-sports, travel partner and MAC rival with Miami, Andy Murray at the helm, etc.

However, I’m perplexed by the addition of St. Cloud.

When the NCHC announced the formation of the conference, “like-mindedness” and a commitment to hockey were noted as key tenets that brought these schools together. I must confess I do not know a ton about St. Cloud as a university, but I know they aren’t a Division I school (though defending national champion UMD isn’t either), they aren’t highly regarded academically and I can only hope assume their ability to support hockey at this highest level is not a challenge for them financially. Plus, St. Cloud’s president went on the record saying the Huskies would not accept an invite to the NCHC as our pal Goon reported a few months back over at Goon’s World making him either a slick politician or an absolute hypocrite.

So, I’m wondering what SCSU brings that Bowling Green doesn’t?

It’s another Minnesota school which is a boon for recruiting, but Bowling Green is a Division I school and inviting them would have kept the three hockey-playing MAC schools together. If Notre Dame wasn’t (ever) going to accept the invitation, I wonder why the NCHC is going with a small non-Division I school over a program that has won a national title, has reaffirmed their commitment to hockey and is a three-hour drive from Oxford, Ohio?

More on this to come over the next few weeks I’m sure.

Miami Battles Western Michigan For Mason Cup

Detroit, Mich. – For the fifth, and possibly final time this season, the Miami RedHawks (22-9-6) faceoff against Western Michigan (19-11-10) in the CCHA championship game at 7:35pm at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Wow, that opening line seems strangely familiar as do a lot of what I have to say below. It’s another case of an extremely experienced and talented RedHawk team taking on a much less experienced, albeit talented, group from Western Michigan.

The RedHawks won the season series 2-1-1 splitting a pair in Kalamazoo and tying and winning in Oxford just a few weeks ago. The RedHawks could have easily swept both series as they lost third periods in two of the four games that led to a loss and a tie including losing a third period lead in Oxford. Miami is 8-1-1 against the Broncos in the last ten meetings but this is a much different team under former Miami assistant Jeff Blashill who has the Broncos playing great defensive hockey. And, in last night’s semifinal victory over Michigan, they exhibited a scoring touch like we haven’t seen much of this season.

Much like against Notre Dame, Miami has a significant advantage in experience.

Western Michigan hasn’t been to the CCHA Championship game in 1986. That’s before nearly, if not all, of their players were born. On the other hand, Miami has played in dozens of big games over the past four years and this senior class is trying to become the first to lead Miami to a Mason Cup. Something they can earn with a win tonight. It’s also likely that with a win, Miami would claim a #1 seed in the next weekend’s NCAA tournament which would be amazing considering Miami was 19th in the PairWise back in January. The RedHawks are peaking at the right time this season as they’ve made a tremendous late run.

Overall, I think Miami has more weapons, is more experienced and is playing its best hockey of the season at the right time. Miami brings a 12-game unbeaten streak (9-0-3) into tonight’s game.

Here’s a look at each team.

Offense

Up front, Western is led by freshmen Chase Balisy and former Miami commit Shane Berschbach and senior Max Campbell. However, if you take Balisy and Campbell (their top 2 scorers) together, their point totals to do not equal Hobey Baker finalist Andy Miele’s season totals alone. With Reilly Smith, Carter Camper, Pat Cannone and Alden Hirschfeld elevating their games, Western does not boast the offensive depth that Miami does.

Miami has a distinct advantage offensively.

Defense

Named to the CCHA’s All-Rookie team, freshman Dan DeKeyser has done a tremendous job stabilizing and solidifying the Broncos blue line. As a 21-year old freshman, what he lacks in collegiate experience can be made up for by his overall maturity. And, at 6’2″, he has the size to counter Miami’s larger forwards and can still work to contain the smaller ones like Miele and Camper.

Though he did not play yesterday against Notre Dame, Matt Tomassoni and the Miami defensive corps are playing their best hockey of the season. Against Notre Dame, Miami blocked 16 shots and allowed just two fluke goals (including a 5×3) in their semifinal win. Miami’s penalty kill was outstanding allowing just the one 5×3 against in six opportunities.

With Miami’s experience and size, I like our blue line vs. theirs.

Goaltending

Senior Jerry Kuhn has been outstanding for Western Michigan and he looked fabulous against Michigan last night making 29 saves in the Broncos victory. Against Miami, Kuhn is 0-1-1 this season as he surrendered three goals in both games in Oxford last month.

For Miami, it doesn’t really matter who is in net right now, both Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp are playing their best hockey of the year. The real question for tonight is who will play? Knapp has played better against Western this year earning two victories and has allowed just two goals in two games including a shutout so he may get the nod from head coach Enrico Blasi.

Intangibles

Like I said before the Notre Dame game, Miami has played in many big games over the past few seasons. They have the experience to know how to win in tough situations. Last night’s victory over Michigan is arguably Western’s biggest win in more than a decade. It will be interesting to see if they can channel that again tonight or did they spend everything they had in the semifinal win over the Wolverines.

Again, I like the way Miami is playing bringing a 12-game unbeaten streak into play today. I like Miami’s experience and the will of this senior class to attempt to earn Miami’s first ever Mason Cup.

I think Miami wins 4-2.

RedHawks vs…Broncos

Detroit, Mich. – Though he was inexplicably snubbed for the CCHA Coach of the Year honor, former Miami assistant and current Western Michigan head coach Jeff Blashill has to be satisfied that his Broncos are in the CCHA title game for the first time since 1986. And, if they’re going to win their first championship in 25 years, they will have to do it against Blashill’s former employer, Enrico Blasi and Miami.

The Broncos thoroughly dominated the Michigan Wolverines defeating them 5-2 in the second CCHA semifinal at Joe Louis Arena.

Senior goaltender Jerry Kuhn was solid as the Broncos limited Michigan’s chances and took advantage of their power play opportunities to chase Shawn Hunwick from the Wolverine net after two periods. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard a lot from Michigan fans about how Hunwick was passed over for awards consideration. After tonight’s debacle for the CCHA’s Goaltender of the Year, I’d say the coaches and media had it right. And, as for Carl Hagelin, he was a non-factor and will have to settle for his CCHA Best Defensive Forward Award rather than a CCHA Championship.

Miami and Western Michigan will faceoff at 7:35pm EST for the CCHA’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. With a win, it’s possible that Miami will earn a #1 seed in the tournament as well as claiming their first Mason Cup. The CCHA Championship game will be broadcast on FS Detroit+ which is Directv 664 on your tee vee dial. This will be the teams’ fifth meeting this year with Miami winning the regular season series 2-1-1.

Michigan and Notre Dame will play the consolation game at 3:35pm EST.