Photo by Lauren Olson, Photography Editor
By Steven Perkins, Staff Writer
The No. 7 Miami University men's hockey team hits the road to face No. 2 University of North Dakota in one of the bigger National Collegiate Hockey Conferences series so far.
North Dakota comes into the weekend with a record of 7-1-1 and a 2-0 mark in the NCHC. UND's sole loss came in its season opener at home against Bemidji State University where they fell short 5-1. Since then, North Dakota hasn't lost a game.
"Well, they're obviously one of the top ranked teams in the country, and rightly so," head coach Enrico Blasi said. "They're well coached. They've got weapons up and down their lineup. Their forwards and defense are as talented as anyone in the country. Their goaltender is big time too, so this is going to be a good challenge and a big test for us on the road."
Junior forward Riley Barber, fresh off winning NCHC Offensive Player of the Week, is looking forward to going on the road.
"These are the really fun games to play in," Baber said. "Especially in a barn like they have and how many people are going to be there and how much excitement's going to be around it. I mean this is why you play college hockey. I'm really excited to get going."
Barber is hoping the team's recent success carries over into the series with North Dakota.
"It's always good to get going offensively especially when the team's winning," Barber said. "This week was huge and we just have to try to carry it into this weekend."
Puck possession is a staple point in the 'Hawks (7-3, 3-1 NCHC) game, giving them offensive chances and less time spent in the defensive zone.
"Well I think that's the name of the game," Blasi said. "You've got to make sure you're making strong plays with the puck and playing good team defense. It's going to be vitally important against North Dakota. They do everything well and if you want to be in the game you have to make sure you're taking care of the puck when you have it and when you don't have it you have to play defense."
Junior goalie Jay Williams agreed puck possession was an important piece of the puzzle.
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"It's huge, just from a team standpoint really," Williams said. "The more you possess the puck the more you wear down the other team, you know you gain confidence and you get opportunities. We've played against some hot goalies at home and some great goaltending, but I think we've shown that if you stick with it and you continue to possess the puck, you find a way."
Despite some one-sided offensive efforts, Miami has struggled to score at times this year. Senior captain and forward Austin Czarnik said the scoring-filled weekend was a confidence boost.
"We've been struggling offensively with all the shots we've been getting," Czarnik said. "It was great to execute finally and we just have to keep on going and bury our chances when we get them."
Miami is ranked first in the country in shot differential with a +15.2 average and second in shots taken with an average of 39.6 shots per game. The RedHawks shot differential comes from both generating offense and limiting their opponents' chances.
"They make my job easy," Williams said. "It's not just the defensemen who have done a wonderful job, but the forwards as well. Guys coming back and blocking shots and getting pucks out."
Czarnik said the defensive success leads to offensive chances.
"Defensively we've been great so far this year," Czarnik said. "I think we're at two goals against per game. It all starts in the D-zone and once you move from there the offense comes. It all correlates with one another."
Barber said the defensive play is going to be a big part of the weekend.
"I think we have to carry that into North Dakota because they're a great team offensively," Barber said. "They're the number two team in the country so we're gonna be challenged in all assets and we're ready for it."
Blasi said he liked Miami's effort and is trying to keep the team focused as the break approaches.
"I like the way we're playing right now and I think the guys have a good mindset in the way they approach their daily routine," Blasi said. "We've just got to make sure we're holding each other accountable. We've got a few weekends left here before Christmas break, so we have to make sure we're staying focused."
Miami faces off against North Dakota 7:37 CST Friday and 7:07 CST Saturday.