Headed into last weekend, there was little reason to believe Miami would have any success, even if they were at home against Omaha, a team that had lost their leading scorer to injury and one Miami tied and defeated in November.
However, the second half has not been kind to the RedHawks, who were on an 0-9-2 skid entering the weekend. Part of that was the competition, but even then, in several of those contests, Miami was blown out.
“When you look at those 11 games, the 0-9-2, that was Denver four times, it was North Dakota, and it was at St. Cloud State, who’s played well at home,” said Miami coach Chris Bergeron. “We’ve been fighting the mental side of things basically the whole second half outside of the first two games. I think physically we’re fine, but mentally our record, we look at in eight-game segments, and the last eight-game segment was not good.
“We were kind of fighting that waiting-for-something-bad-to-happen mentality and wanting to go out there and find ways to make something good happen. I think it was a combination of a little bit of confidence from the series in Omaha and the fact that we’ve really been stressing the mental side of things as well as we move forward and try to finish the year strong.”
Miami certainly looked impressive in sweeping the Mavericks last weekend, posting back-to-back shutouts, 3-0 and 4-0. Bergeron and his team refocused the defense after giving up 14 goals to Denver the previous weekend. A big part was the penalty kill, which has been a dismal 75.4 percent; it killed off all seven Omaha power plays on the weekend.
“The defensive side of the game and keeping pucks out of our net has been a focus of our team since Day 1, and unfortunately, we’ve fallen short more times than not,” said Bergeron. “If you look leading up to Omaha, there was a really poor series at Denver in terms of pucks ending up in our net, so we went back to focusing on playing fast in the ‘D’ zone, focusing on time and space, focusing on not turning pucks over once we earned it. We know we have goaltenders that are capable. We just have put them in really, really bad spots most of the year. The other part of that was our penalty kill. Our penalty kill has been poor, and this past weekend our penalty kill was pretty good. It really wasn’t anything new.
“It was just a better level of execution both defensive zone-wise off the rush and killing penalties.”
While Miami hasn’t seen too many bright spots this season, the play of its top line, consisting of seniors Gordie Green and Karch Bachman and junior Casey Gilling, has been consistent. Green leads the team with 34 points in 32 games, while Bachman has 29 points and Gilling 28. They are also one reason Miami’s power play is 15th in the country.
“Those three guys are our most consistent contributors offensively,” said Bergeron. “Our first power-play unit has been really good, kind of a quiet good with the team where we are in the standings. Normally, the power play isn’t that strong, but our power play has been pretty good. It also had a good weekend this past weekend against Omaha. I think that when you look at the scoring, you have to give a bunch of that credit to those three forwards for sure. I think Derek Daschke’s also done a pretty good job, which again goes back to the power play.
“Outside of that, I think when we have more guys contributing offensively, our team has success, or more success. It’s just something that hasn’t happened enough.”
Miami has escaped the NCHC cellar after back-to-back last place finishes and barring a Colorado College sweep of Denver and Miami getting swept by Western Michigan, they will at least finish seventh. They even have a chance to move ahead of Omaha to sixth, but Bergeron said the standings are the last thing his team is thinking of right now.
“We can take some positive out of the last time we played, that’s it,” Bergeron said. “The standings isn’t something we’re focusing on right now; we’re trying to be the best version of ourselves. It’s something that has eluded us in terms of consistency over the course of the year. Honestly, I’m not giving you coach speak. I’m not giving clichés. We haven’t looked at the standings. We haven’t paid attention. We are where we are with two games to go in the regular season. We will be traveling for the first round of the playoffs.
“Our focus on a daily basis is to play better. We think that there’s room for improvement with our team. Based on last weekend, it’s probably more about consistency, now putting a third pretty good game in a row, and then a fourth, and hopefully we just string a bunch of games that are pretty good together here to hopefully have a push at the end of the year.”
This weekend, the RedHawks are on the road at Western Michigan, a daunting place to play. The Broncos have also been red hot in the second half, so Bergeron knows his team has a big challenge to build off what it accomplished last weekend.
“I’m a huge fan of Western’s team; they’ve got older guys that lead the way, [and] they’ve got high-end talent,” Bergeron said. “They’re competitive. We played them three weeks ago here at Oxford, and it was a fairly competitive series until the last period and a half of the Saturday night game where we just weren’t competitive at all. They exposed us for it. It’s going to be their senior weekend in terms of the last regular season games for those seniors. I am expecting it to be a difficult atmosphere and building; it’s a very difficult building for sure, never mind that it’s a really, really good team. So we’re going to take care of the puck, and when we get opportunities on special teams, whether it’s penalty kill or power play, we’re going to have to execute at the level we were last weekend, which is going to be very difficult.
“I think Western’s a team that puts all kinds of pressure on you, and they take advantage of mistakes you make because of how skilled they are.”
Gold Pan still up for grabs
One of college hockey’s most storied rivalries renews this weekend when Denver and Colorado College play a home-and-home.
The Gold Pan, awarded each year to the winner of the four-game season series, is still on the line.
Last year, Colorado College won it for the first time in four years. Denver has won seven of the last 10. To win the Gold Pan from the opposing team, a team has to win at least two games and get a tie in a third.
Denver is in position to win it again after sweeping CC in December. The Pioneers need only a tie in one of this weekend’s games to win it, while CC would need to sweep the Pioneers to retain it. Denver is also seeking to claim home ice for the first round of the NCHC playoffs and can do so with two points this weekend.
An interesting subplot is how the December series affected both teams.
Entering that weekend, Denver was on an abysmal 1-4-3 stretch, while CC was coming off a weekend sweep of Princeton and was 6-5-1 on the year, looking like they were building off their appearance at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff last season.
After sweeping CC, Denver went 6-0-2 in its next eight and aside from its continued struggles against Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota has looked like a solid NCAA tournament team. CC, meanwhile, has gone 5-12-1 since that Denver series, including a stretch where the Tigers lost seven straight.
Other NCHC races
While the league champion race is decided, with North Dakota claiming its third Penrose Cup, there is still some volatility in the races.
Minnesota Duluth will finish second unless they sweep Western Michigan and Omaha sweeps North Dakota. If that happens, the two would share the Penrose and the Bulldogs would get the top seed.
Denver can secure home ice with a win and third place with five points this coming weekend. Western Michigan can also lock up home ice by taking five of six points against Miami. If Western can’t get a win and a tie/win, St. Cloud State could overtake them. St. Cloud State trails Western Michigan by two points in the race for home ice and would need to hope Miami can at least take one game from the Broncos while the Huskies sweep against Minnesota Duluth. There is also a scenario where St. Cloud could finish third if the Huskies end up in a three-way tie with Western and Denver and each team has 37, 38, or 39 points.
Barring an unlikely CC sweep of Denver combined with a Western Michigan sweep of Miami, the Tigers will finish last for the fourth time in the league’s seven seasons. Miami can also overtake Omaha by getting four points this weekend if North Dakota can sweep the Mavericks. Omaha needs a win or a Miami loss to secure sixth place.