Photo by Lauren Olson, Photography Editor
By Grace Remington, Staff Writer
In a rivalry that dates back to the days of the CCHA, No. 5 Miami University hockey hosts a best-of-three series with Western Michigan University in the quarterfinals of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference playoffs this weekend. Miami plays as the No. 2 seed in the conference, while WMU plays as No. 7.
Head coach Enrico Blasi views playoff hockey as a fresh start for every team in the league, despite their regular season finishes.
"It's a new season," Blasi said. "Everybody starts with a clean slate. We're excited for the opportunity to play in the post season … it's a grind with the league that we play in. Everybody is so well-matched that focusing on preparation and one game at a time is really the thing that's gotten us here to this point."
The RedHawks are 3-0-1 against the Broncos (13-16-5, 6-13-5-4 NCHC) this season, improving their all-time series record to 60-56-11. The series is Miami's longest-running conference series.
MU (21-12-1, 14-9-1-1 NCHC) is also 2-0 all-time in playoff games against Western Michigan. The last postseason meeting between the two was the 2012 CCHA Semifinals, in which the Broncos won 6-2.
Though Miami holds the edge in both this year's and the all-time record, senior center Austin Czarnik does not believe it gives the 'Hawks any advantage in this weekend's series.
"They're a hard team to play against," the team captain said. "It's going to fuel them even more to come out and be ready. If we play the way we have against them this year, we can have a lot of success. But I think they're going to be ready, and we have to match their intensity every single night." Blasi echoed the sentiment.
"Listen, everybody in our league can beat anybody," Blasi said. "We respect Western Michigan. All of our games are real tight games … you can just look at the stats, they've all been one-goal games. For us, it's a matter of going out there and making sure we leave our best on the ice. All teams are playing for the next night at this point in the season, nobody's guaranteed anything."
MU swept Western Michigan at home in November with wins of 1-0 and 5-2. Their third meeting was Jan. 31 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In a game that came down to the last seconds, Miami defeated the Broncos 2-1 in a four-round shootout after a 3-3 tie in regulation. One week later, the 'Hawks defeated WMU 4-3 in the Hockey City Classic in Chicago.
Miami enters the weekend's series after a split at home against No. 1 University of North Dakota. After a 2-1 loss Friday, Czarnik scored his first career hat trick to help Miami secure a 6-3 victory Saturday. The center's three goals of the night were more than his previous total of two all season.
Enjoy what you're reading?
Signup for our newsletter
"Obviously, after finally putting in some goals through the year, I have a lot of confidence right now," Czarnik said. "That's my plan going into the week - to shoot the puck more. So I'm just going to focus on that and keep on making plays."
The Broncos snapped a six-game winless streak by defeating No. 6 University of Minnesota Duluth 3-0 in their regular season finale Saturday.
Western Michigan is the nation's most penalized team, averaging 16.41 penalty minutes per game. Blasi thinks it is important to stay in control when facing a physical team.
"Playoff hockey is all about executing and being disciplined in your system and the way you play," Blasi said. "You don't want to give teams an opportunity to take advantage of special teams … we have to play disciplined, we have to play smart. We know they're a physical team. They're going to come out and play hard. That's the way they play. It's one of the things we respect about them."
According to Czarnik, improving defensive play will be key for Miami's success this weekend.
"D-zone. Our D-zone is so important when you're in a game," Czarnik said. "If the D-zone is great, then it leads to offense and breaks, so as long as that's good, we'll keep on going in the offense."
Puck drop is 7:35 p.m. Friday in Oxford, and Saturday's puck drop is 7:05 p.m. If necessary, the third game begins at 7:05 p.m. Sunday.
For now, Blasi and the team are taking it one game at a time, which means concentrating on Friday.
"For us, nothing's changing here," Blasi said. "Like I said earlier, it's a new season. Everybody starts at zero. You have to play your best and prepare your best come Friday."