Students are back on campus for their first week of classes, and to celebrate the first weekend back from the long winter break, the Miami University RedHawks hockey team is taking on the #2 ranked University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks at Goggin Ice Center on Friday, Feb. 2 and Saturday, Feb. 3.
Before delving into the upcoming series, the RedHawks suffered a 1-4 loss in the first game against the Niagara University Purple Eagles before Logan Neaton slammed the door shut with a 3-0 shutout, his first of the season.
At that point in the season, the Purple Eagles were 6-10-1, and the RedHawks were 5-9-2. Neither team was exactly playing at the top of their respective games, and the results showed that.
The then-ranked #10 Western Michigan University Broncos came into town for the first series of the new year. They took the first game of the weekend set before the RedHawks shocked the Broncos and earned the series split with a 4-3 win in a game with 28 minutes total in penalties.
After that win, there have been issues leading into this series against the Fighting Hawks. The RedHawks were swept in the following two series against the Colorado College Tigers and the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, two National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) opponents.
The first game of the series against Colorado College was tied 1-1 until the Tigers forward Tommy Middleton found twine with less than a minute remaining. The RedHawks dropped the second game 4-2.
It was more of the same against the Bulldogs. Minnesota Duluth pulled away in a decisive 6-2 victory in the first game thanks to a Ben Steeves hat-trick. The RedHawks lost the second game 3-2 in overtime.
The RedHawks hit the upcoming weekend series against the #2 University of North Dakota, who are coming off a sweep against another NCHC foe, the #5 Denver Pioneers, who moved down from #4 after last week’s loss.
“They’re probably playing better now than they were then,” Head Coach Chris Bergeron said, referring to the first series that these two teams played earlier in the season. North Dakota swept the RedHawks in November at Ralph Engelstad Arena by scores of 6-4 and 5-1.
Those two games were an excellent example of the talent disparity between the two groups. If the RedHawks want a chance to beat North Dakota, they need to truly stick to their systems and find ways to execute at every opportunity.
“We’re going to have to play the game a certain way,” Bergeron said. “We’re going to have to possess the puck, try to make their top people defend in terms of five-on-five, and we have to stay out of the penalty box. They’re just really good.”
Possessing the puck is the big key here. North Dakota is not only a talented team, but they’re also a fast, puck-possession-oriented group. The more chances for the RedHawks to take the puck out of their hands and keep it, the better.
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As for players to watch in this series, the first name that has to come up is Jackson Blake, a smooth-skating and crafty Carolina Hurricanes draft pick with 34 points in 16 games (tied for 7th in league scoring).
Then, there is Owen McLaughlin, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect who scored the game-winning goal in the second game of the series against the Pioneers and has totaled 28 points in 25 games.
As if those two weren’t impressive enough, the Fighting Hawks have Cameron Berg, a New York Islanders prospect who has 26 points in 26 games, and the team’s captain, Riese Gaber, a player who has given the RedHawks fits over the years, with 23 points in 26 games.
The North Dakota lineup boasts five players with at least 20 points. The team’s sixth-leading scorer, Jake Livanavage, is a first-year defender with 17 points in 26 games, the team’s first power-play defender, and recent nominee for the Tim Taylor Awards for 2024, an award “presented annually to the nation’s top freshman.”
However, there are also essential injuries to note for both squads.
Per Brad Elliott Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald, the RedHawks will be missing goaltender Logan Neaton, senior forward and leading scorer, Matthew Barbolini, sophomore forward William Hallén, and Michael Feenstra. It’s also possible that Raimonds Vitolins and Frankie Carogioello miss one of the games or both this weekend.
For the Fighting Hawks, Schlossman reports that first-line winger Hunter Johannes (15 points in 23 games) and bottom-six forward Carson Albrecht (2 points in 17 games) did not travel to Oxford with the team..
The RedHawks will have a lot on their hands this weekend, but this college hockey season has been odd, with plenty of unranked teams winning games against the best teams in the nation.
As Bergeron has said before, college hockey is a game of mistakes and executing on them, and that’s what the RedHawks need to do every step of the way if they want to win against a powerhouse team. Both games start at 7:05 p.m. at Goggin Ice Center.