By John Lachmann
COLUMBUS, Ohio – For the third straight game, Miami held its opponent to just one goal.
The team’s stingy defense helped the RedHawks extend their road unbeaten streak to five games heading into Christmas break with a 3-1 win over Ohio State at Value City Arena on Saturday.
Miami has completed half of its conference schedule and with 30 points, the RedHawks are tied for first place with Notre Dame, albeit with three more CCHA games played than the Fighting Irish.
Freshman forward Riley Barber and sophomore forward Blake Coleman tallied a goal and an assist each and sophomore forward Austin Czarnik finished with a pair of helpers.
RedHawks freshman goalie Ryan McKay turned 22 shots aside to improve to 3-1-1. He has a 0.58 goals-against average and a .979 save percentage in 308-plus minutes this season.
Miami dominated play in the first period but had nothing to show for it until Gacek made it 1-0 with 23 seconds left.
Gacek took a feed from sophomore forward Cody Murphy in the offensive zone and wristed it over the glove of Ohio State goalie Brady Hjelle.
Miami continued to take it to the Buckeyes in the middle frame, and the RedHawks extended their lead to two when Coleman batted home a rebound off a shot from Barber on the power play less than four minutes into the stanza.
Through two periods, Miami had outshot Ohio State, 24-12.
The Buckeyes came out energetic in the third period, and they cut the Miami lead to one when Max McCormick fired a shot past McKay from the slot with 13:40 remaining.
But Miami held off the Ohio State surge, and Barber fired a spinning shot for an empty netter with 26 seconds left to seal the game.
The RedHawks, who have now completed 18 of the 36 games on their regular season schedule, wrapped up the first half with a 5-2-1 road record.
Miami is off next weekend and will play in the Three Rivers Classic at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh Dec. 28-29. The RedHawks will face Ohio State for the third straight game in the tournament opener at 7:30 p.m. that Friday.
ANALYSIS: It’s nice to get a different perspective of the team from time to time, and sitting back and closer to center ice really helped one appreciate the speed of Miami, especially compared to the significantly slower Buckeyes.
We’ve talked a lot about how this team has had that killer instinct late in games with the lead that was sometimes lacking the past couple of seasons. Miami entered the third period with a two-goal lead and OSU cut it to one, but the RedHawks never relinquished the lead.
And right after the Buckeyes made it 2-1, Miami had to kill a Ben Paulides penalty. McKay made three saves on the PK – the RedHawks’ fifth kill of the game.
That seemed to demoralize Ohio State, which would manage just four more shots on goal, and Barber ended it with the empty netter.
Coach Enrico Blasi did something interesting late after Miami struggled mightily on faceoffs for the second straight night – he put senior Curtis McKenzie in the circle to take a defensive zone draw on the penalty kill.
The move worked as he won the faceoff and the RedHawks got the clear. McKenzie went 2-1 on faceoffs for the game. Czarnik was better than Friday but still finished 8-16 on draws.
Freshman Sean Kuraly was 12-5 and has been the best RedHawk on faceoffs all season. He was also a solid PK option with USHL Indiana, so maybe Blasi will give him a shot at killing penalties at some point.
From the third period of Friday’s game through this game, Gacek was one of Miami’s best forwards. With junior Bryon Paulazzo apparently in Blasi’s doghouse, Gacek should stick in the RedHawks’ lineup.
FORWARDS: B+. Three goals is an average night, especially with one being an empty netter, but Miami gets props for the horrific ice conditions.
These teams could have dropped the puck in the parking lot outside of Value City and it would have played better than the rink’s ice surface.
Plus the four lines the RedHawks rolled out on Saturday dominated more than the final score indicated.
McKenzie continues to impress in his role on the first line, although playing with Czarnik and Barber is going to make anyone better.
DEFENSEMEN: B+. The mistakes Miami made on Friday were fewer in number on Saturday.
Senior Joe Hartman has played very well since returning from his foot injury, and he’s even earning some power play time.
GOALTENDING: A-. McKay stopped 22 of 23 shots, allowing one goal in 59:57…and he actually hurt both his goals-against average and his save percentage.
It had to be a stressful game for both him and Jay Williams on Friday, considering the odd bounces the puck was taking.
But true to form, McKay kept his cool the entire game and made three key saves on the Ohio State power play immediately following the Buckeyes’ goal.
LINEUP CHANGES: Saturday’s lineup card was closer to the season norm, as both sophomore forward Jimmy Mullin and freshman defenseman Taylor Richart returned to the ice after