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’Hawks host Denver in NCHC series

Senior Staff Writer

Published: Friday, December 6, 2013

Updated: Friday, December 6, 2013 10:12

For the No. 12 Miami University hockey team, this weekend’s series isn’t only a National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) showdown that could shape both team’s futures – these two games will be the last regular season contests for 34 days.

The Brotherhood (8-6-2; 2-4-0-0 NCHC) is slated to skate twice against the University of Denver Pioneers (7-5-2; 3-2-1-1 NCHC), who are riding a six-game unbeaten streak that dates back to Nov. 2. It’s the first home stand for the RedHawks since they split their series against Wisconsin Nov. 15-16.

“These are two really big games for us,” sophomore defenseman Matthew Caito said. “These are league games, which means these points will be very important down the road. We need to keep building on this momentum from last weekend and keep moving forward.”

The ’Hawks ended a four-game winless streak last Saturday, thanks in large part to the heroics of junior forward and captain Austin Czarnik and his five-assist night. The career best point total for last year’s Hobey Baker finalist boosted Miami to a 6-3 win over Bemidji State University, and recaptured the confidence of a reeling RedHawks team.

“It was a good way to go into our final week before break and exams,” head coach Enrico Blasi said. “It’s the way you want to go into your last two games, and these are league games … and this is going to be a huge challenge.

“Their new coach, coach [Jim] Montgomery is a pretty good technician and he understands what needs to be done. They’ve got a D core that’s as good as any in the country, their goaltending is great and they’ve got some veteran forwards that are really good, so it’s going to take us playing our best hockey to be in the game and make sure we’re giving ourselves the best chance to win.”

Denver’s defense is ranked fourth in NCAA in points allowed, giving up just 1.86 a game. On the other side of the puck, Miami is ranked 13th overall in total offense, netting 3.44 goals per contest. They’ll need that firepower to be in full effect Friday night; Pioneer senior goalie Sam Brittain has been impeccable between the pipes this year. The senior is tied for third nationally with a .945 save percentage, and boasts a 1.66 goals-against average, good for fourth among active netminders. Brittain also leads the nation in shutouts with three, a distinction he shares with Miami sophomore goalie Ryan McKay.

“For us, it’s been kind of the same message for the past eight weeks,” Blasi said. “We’ve played teams that have had this caliber of player. I think we know what we need to do, we’ve just got to be ready to go on Friday.”

A couple of incomplete games and bad bounces have knocked Miami down in the rankings the past few weeks, but for the Brotherhood, it’s all in the past. The thing they’re focused on is this weekend, a series Caito said would be a huge step in the right direction heading into 2014.

“This league is not easy, you’re going to play strong teams every weekend,” Caito said. “It would be huge to finish of this first half [of the season] with two big wins.”

Friday’s puck drop is scheduled for 7:35 p.m., renewing a 27-year-old, casual rivalry that pits these two teams in a conference game for the first time. Miami and Denver have squared off eight times in their history, and the result has been an even 4-4 split. The RedHawks have won the most recent three meetings, however, starting with a 5-2 win on Oct. 6, 2006 – a game that marked the opening of the current Goggin Ice Center.

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