After retaining the No. 1 spot in the national polls and suffering only two losses during the entire first half of the 2009-10 campaign, the Miami University men's hockey team (13-4-5 overall) faltered in its first series of the new year, falling twice to the unranked Robert Morris University Colonials (5-12-3) in a home-and-home series Jan. 8 and 10. The RedHawks dropped to No. 2 in the USCHO.com poll as Denver University claimed the throne.
Finding success in the second half of the hockey season can be likened to sticking to a New Year's resolution - both require patience, effort and revamping of past methods and old habits.
This phenomenon isn't new to Miami hockey. Last year the brotherhood dropped five straight - including losses to Clarkson and Army - at the outset of 2009 before getting back on its feet with a big 6-1 win against Michigan State. In 2007-08, Bowling Green State University snapped a four-game losing streak with a home-ice win over the then No. 1 RedHawks at the outset of the second half. First half victories do not necessarily guarantee equal momentum going into the latter part of the season.
Granted, the losses do sting. Prior to upsetting the Red and White, the Colonials hadn't won a game in nearly two months and only had three wins on the season. The victories snapped a nine game winless streak for the Blue and White and doubled Miami's loss tally for the season.
A few common themes evidenced themselves throughout the series. The RedHawks outshot RMU by a significant margin both nights, but as one puck after another either clanged off the post or was smothered by RMU sophomore net minder Brooks Ostergard's red hot glove, Miami failed to take its chances to the back of the net.
"We've scored two goals in the last two games and we hit a lot of posts, but posts are a part of the game," Miami Head Coach Enrico Blasi said. "We've got to execute better."
The Colonials made the most of every opportunity - though they were outshot 14-5 in the final frame of Friday night's contest, the Blue and White still managed to chip two in during that period, and it took only four shots on goal for RMU to net their first point Sunday.
Additionally, the Brotherhood fell short in the first period of both contests. Miami could not manage to light the lamp during the opening stanza of either game - a problem that has plagued the team all season. In both games as well, RMU was first to get on the scoreboard.
Special teams also played a substantial role in both contests. The Colonials opened up scoring with a shorthanded goal during game one, followed by a RedHawk power play tally. All three of the goals netted during game two came on the man-advantage.
Finally, there was Ostergard's indomitable performance between the pipes. The goaltender from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, could do no wrong, turning away a total of 77 shots during the course of the weekend and leaving the RedHawks stonewalled and stumped.
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Miami dominated the opening action Jan. 8 at Mellon Arena, posting a 6-1 shot advantage early on and controlling the puck. RMU bided its time, though, and with sophomore Ron Cramer in the box for hooking and the clock winding down, the Blue and White drew first blood on a shorthanded breakaway. RMU's penalty kill (PK) unit tipped the puck into neutral ice to junior Chris Kushneriuk, who streaked up ice, faked a shot, and beat sophomore goalie Cody Reichard to make it 1-1 with just 21 seconds remaining until the first intermission.
"I thought we just needed to get into the game a little bit more; we turned a few pucks over and didn't get things deep, but Brooks made the saves he had to until we got moving and playing a little better," RMU Head Coach Derek Schooley said.
The Red and White, notorious for its never-say-die attitude, answered back with a 5-on-3 power play tally at 5:54 of the second period. Junior Andy Miele drew a hooking penalty on an individual backhanded effort, creating the two-man advantage and nine seconds after a Miami penalty ran out, junior Carter Camper picked up a rebound from sophomore Chris Wideman and put the puck away to even the score.
The Blue and White stopped the RedHawks' rally effort early in the final frame, however, posting a pair of goals just 1:11 apart to close out scoring for the night. Senior J.C. Velasquez took a 2-on-1 centering pass from sophomore Nick Chiavetta and put the puck away top shelf at 5:02 to give RMU the lead. Freshman Stefan Salituro hammered in the final nail on a delayed penalty at 6:13, creating a 3-1 advantage against the brotherhood that would stand until the final buzzer.
Again, the RedHawks came out flying Jan. 10, this time in front of a home crowd. Miami peppered Ostergard with pucks and posted a 17-3 shot advantage in the opening period, but to no avail.
"I thought we played pretty well," junior Pat Cannone said. "It's just that they capitalized on the chances that they had and we didn't. We had a lot of wild chances, we hit a couple posts, but we didn't finish when we needed to and that hurt us down the stretch."
Just 11 seconds into the middle stanza, RMU lit the lamp first for the second time as they found the back of the net with what was only their fourth shot of the game. The Colonials won the faceoff and skated the puck into Miami's zone, only to see it poked away by the Brotherhood's PK unit. Junior Nathan Longpre gained control, though, and fired the puck straight through sophomore goaltender Connor Knapp's five hole.
Miami battled back as three of the Red and White's talented juniors - Cannone, Camper and captain Tommy Wingels - combined for the equalizer at 11:46 of the second. On the power play, Wingels fed the puck to Cannone, who angled a shot past Ostergard's glove side to knot the action 1-1.
"We got the puck moving on the power play and we wanted to work it down low, and Wingels brought it up high and made a great fake and froze everybody and just slid it down to me and I was able to catch the goalie out opposition," Cannone said.
Just under five minutes later, however, RMU struck again. With freshmen Curtis McKenzie and Steven Spinell sharing a bench in the sin bin, Miami fought hard to kill off the 5-on-3 disadvantage and managed to hold on long enough for McKenzie to return to the ice. Before play returned to even-strength, however, the Red and White turned the puck over in its own zone, giving RMU junior Denny Urban a window of opportunity to chip one in off the crossbar for a 2-1 Colonial lead. The score stood as the 'Hawks failed to capitalize on two two-man advantages late in the game and struggled to solve Ostergard all the way through the third.
"This might be a good thing," Blasi said. "We've been No. 1 from the beginning and it hasn't changed what we do from week to week. Whether we're No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, it doesn't matter, we're going to do what we have to do to get better, and ultimately the goal is to play the best hockey at the right time and that's a couple months away still. This is a little bump in the road, but I have faith in our team and the guys in the locker room, and Tuesday for practice they'll be ready to go."
Next weekend, the RedHawks will face off against No. 6 Ferris State University in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Bulldogs, fresh off of a series sweep of Notre Dame, are currently tied with Miami for the top slot in conference standings. The contest will be a rematch of the Nov. 13 and 14, 2009 series in which the teams skated to two hard fought ties. Puck drop is slated for 7:05 p.m. Jan. 15 and 5:05 p.m. Jan. 16.