Through six games this season, Miami hockey has only allowed 11 goals.
That’s a big change. Last season, the RedHawks were second-worst in Division I for goals allowed per game with 4.3, only better than St. Thomas, who was playing its first year above Division III.
Miami only gave up three goals in its most recent series, a resounding road sweep of Canisius at the HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo, NY.
The RedHawks won 5-3 on Friday and 2-0 on Saturday. Two of Canisius’s goals on Friday were scored in garbage time too, after Miami had already put five on the board.
But fourth-year Head Coach Chris Bergeron still isn’t quite satisfied.
“I think overall our defensive play has been better,” Bergeron said after Saturday’s shutout. “I think overall our penalty kill is better … I like our defensive plan. I like our level of commitment to keeping pucks out of our net. But again, we’re going to get a whole another set of problems next weekend when we face Denver.”
But before we move on to the reigning national champion No. 3 Denver, the RedHawks deserve some love for how they played in Buffalo.
National circles have taken notice.
Miami received five votes in the US College Hockey Online poll this week, something that hasn’t happened in years. According to the pairwise, a metric that tries to rank Division I teams based on win-loss record and strength of schedule, Miami is fifth best in the country. Now take this with a grain of salt — the pairwise rankings don’t mean much this early in the season. But it’s still fun.
The star of the show in Buffalo, as usual, was junior goalie Ludvig Persson.
Persson made 18 saves in the 5-3 win on Friday. The second goal he allowed wasn’t his fault. He stopped the first shot off a Canisius rush and made a lunging save on the second one. He ended up on his stomach after that, and the RedHawk defense couldn’t clear the net. He had no chance to make the third.
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The last goal was a fluky shot from around the top of the right circle that it looked like he didn’t see. It looked like the shooter used Miami’s 6-4 senior captain Jack Clement as a screen, so it’s easy to forgive Persson for losing track of the puck.
On Saturday, Persson was magnificent. Miami scored 6:38 into the first period when senior forward Ryan Savage tapped home a beautiful feed from junior forward Matt Barbolini. After that, Miami couldn’t get much going offensively. For the next two-and-a-half periods, and especially in the third, Persson made acrobatic save after acrobatic save to preserve Miami’s lead. By the time star sophomore center Red Savage guided the game-sealing goal into Canisius’s empty net, Persson had made 25 saves to win the game for Miami.
“It was a big time performance from a big time player,” Bergeron said after Saturday’s game.
It sure was.
Persson has been Miami’s best player for the past two years. In his first year, Persson finished with a .925 save percentage even though Miami allowed the sixth most shots in the country. For a first-year player, Persson’s performance was almost hard to believe. Last year, he was merely good, but he still kept Miami in a lot of games that probably should’ve been blowouts.
So far this year, Ludvig is back to first-year form. He’s been better, actually. Through six games he has a .938 save percentage. A ridiculous number. Probably not sustainable, but come on. It's Ludvig Persson we’re talking about.
Persson hasn’t been the only standout RedHawk this year.
Red Savage was great last year. He’s always been a slick skater with superb stick skills. This year though, he’s been much more creative in the neutral and offensive zones. He looks more confident. He’s shown off a searing slap shot (which he never used last year), and he looks much improved defensively. You better watch him while you can; it’s hard to imagine he won’t jump to the pro ranks next year with how he’s been playing. To make it even more impressive: even as a sophomore he’s still the youngest player on Miami’s roster.
Red has been skating on the first line with his brother Ryan and PJ Fletcher, a junior. Ryan has a great shot and a nose for the net, and the chemistry between the brothers is obvious. Fletcher is a ferocious forechecker who will go in the corners while the Savages find space. The first line didn’t produce a ton this weekend, but if they get going: watch out.
Senior center Joey Casetti has looked like an offensive force so far, with four goals and three assists in the six games. Barbolini has been incredibly fun to watch this year. He’s from the Buffalo, N.Y. area and had a large cheering section on hand to see him score a goal on Friday.
First-year Max Dukovac has made an immediate impact playing on the second line, and he’s one off the team lead in points. Fellow first-years Artur Turansky, William Hallén and John Waldron made up the third line against Canisius. They brought constant energy and were great on the forecheck.
On defense, first-years Zane Demsey and Michael Feenstra make crisp passes and use their long reaches well on defense. Clement is a big, physical presence and a well-rounded defensive defenseman. Junior Hampus Rydqvist has three assists so far, and he’s done a good job as the distributor on Miami’s first power play unit. He already has 12 shots on goal this year, so it’s just a matter of time before he starts scoring.
The vibes around this RedHawk team are exponentially better than they’ve been in my two years here. On paper, this is Miami’s best team in years. They’re deep up front and seem to have a top six that could produce offense. They have capable puck movers on the back end who will do their best each week to slow down the high-powered offenses of the NCHC. And when you have Ludvig Persson, you have a chance.
The real test though comes this weekend against No. 3 Denver. This series, we’re really going to see how good this Miami team can be. The RedHawks play in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). The best conference in college hockey is colloquially referred to as “Hockey’s SEC.”
Five of the NCHC’s eight teams were ranked in the top 20 according to USCHO this week. Three of them are in the top six.
The conference schedule will be a tough test for this fun young Miami team. It all starts this week against Denver.
Last week, Denver had 10 NHL draft picks in its lineup. Miami has one.
That’s all you need to hear to know that on paper, this matchup favors the Pioneers. It’s going to be a familiar theme for the RedHawks this conference season.
Miami and Denver face off at Steve “Coach” Cady Arena in Oxford this weekend. Puck drops at 7:05 p.m. on Friday and at 5:05 p.m. on Saturday.