By John Lachmann
OXFORD, Ohio – Miami ended the first half of its season on a high note.
The RedHawks, who were 1-4-1 in their previous six games, snapped a two-game home losing streak in a 4-2 win over Denver at Cady Arena on Saturday.
Junior center Austin Czarnik scored two goals and assisted on a third, and sophomore forward Riley Barber finished with one marker and a pair of assists.
Of the six goals, all but one were scored in the third period.
Czarnik slammed a one-timer past Pioneers goalie Sam Brittain with 5:30 left in the first period.
Miami (9-7-2) extended its lead when freshman forward Antony Louis got his stick on a Denver pass, redirecting the puck to Barber in the neutral zone. Barber skated in alone and buried a wrister 90 seconds into the final period.
Just 2:11 later, sophomore forward Sean Kuraly made it 3-0 on a wrist shot on the power play off a feed by Barber.
But Denver (8-6-2) battled back.
Matt Tabrum beat Miami goalie Jay Williams just inside the crossbar with 5:55 to play.
Quentin Shore cut the RedHawks’ lead to one with seven seconds remaining. Williams made a highlight-reel diving save to his right, but the puck bounced to the Pioneers’ Quentin Shore, who fired it into the net.
But Czarnik sealed it by chopping at the puck on the ensuing faceoff, sending the puck into the empty net.
Miami heads into Christmas break in sixth place in the NCHC, but the two teams below the RedHawks – Colorado College and Western Michigan – both have two games in hand.
The RedHawks host the U.S. National Development Team in an exhibition game on Dec. 31. Miami returns to regular season action with a weekend series at Western Michigan on Jan. 10-11.
ANALYSIS: First, I thought the defense corps, which has come under fire for its youth and size frequently the first two-plus months of the season, played well all weekend.
Freshman Johnny Wingels was one of Miami’s top blueliners in both games. He made good decisions with the puck and prevented Denver from generating quality shots, dished out punishment (a trait his older brother, Tommy Wingels, exceled in) and pinched into the play a little.
It would be hard to see Wingels not cracking the lineup every night for the foreseeable future if he continues to play at this level. He was also playing on the top pairing with sophomore Matthew Caito, so he was facing the top forwards more often.
Freshman Matt Joyaux also seems to be cementing himself on the lineup card. At 5-feet-7, he almost defies physics with his ability to tie up much larger players and somehow move the puck with accuracy without getting his head taken off in traffic, but it’s working for him.
Based on how much Coach Enrico Blasi used him late along with anchor Caito, it appears he agrees.
And Williams was solid in his return between the pipes. Returning to the rotation with classmate Ryan McKay seems like the answer at this point. McKay was outstanding when playing one game per weekend but for whatever reason his numbers weren’t nearly as good playing every night.
It was been interesting to watch the personnel used on the power play. Blasi continued to play five forwards in the third period, even after establishing a three-goal lead.
Perhaps Blasi lacks confidence in his offensive blueliners, although Caito has done everything right since coming to Oxford, so it’s hard to believe Blasi thinks he can’t run the point.
The other oddity while Denver was having a parade to the penalty box in the third period was: Where is junior Jimmy Mullin on the man advantage?
Miami had over six minutes of power play time in the final stanza and he barely saw the ice.
To set the stage: Junior Blake Coleman is out, junior Cody Murphy is out and junior Alex Wideman was ejected for hitting from behind early in the game. So the RedHawks had 11 forwards and two more good forwards weren’t in the lineup.
Using five forwards on one unit and four on the other, Mullin is easily one of the best nine forwards on the team, especially offensively and especially on a team without the three mentioned above.
It seems like this might have been the opportunity to get Mullin – who has generated scoring chances but has been snakebitten this season – more ice time and a chance to regain his confidence.
Especially with a three-goal lead, it seems like the perfect opportunity to let his overworked studs – Czarnik and Barber – actually rest for more than 30 seconds.
There has to be something going on behind the scenes with Mullin and Blasi, because there’s no on-ice reason whatsoever someone as talented as Mullin should be relegated to 10-12 minutes of ice time without a chance to earn power play points, especially on a team that’s 2-for-22 on the man advantage the last four games.
The win going into the break is beneficial, but it was to salvage a split and Denver wasn’t that impressive of a team.
Yes, preseason polls ultimately are meaningless, but Miami was picked to be one of the top teams in the country and the best in the NCHC in September, which means lots of people close to college hockey had a lot of respect for the RedHawks’ talent entering this campaign.
At this point, this team clearly has not met the media’s expectations or those of its fans. But this break comes at a good time as Miami is banged up and has a chance to regroup before tackling a second-half schedule that doesn’t get any easier.
There’s a ton of hockey left this season and I’m still confident this team has the chance to be special.
FORWARDS: B+. Czarnik’s empty netter alone bumps it to “plus”, as his one-touch goal from the center faceoff circle was something I’d never seen in any level of hockey.
The temptation to grade this unit higher is countered by the penalty factor. Kevin Morris and Barber took penalties, Kuraly took three (two of which were not smart) and Wideman took a minor before being tossed for checking from behind.
Kuraly absolved himself to a large degree with his excellent play when he wasn’t in the box.
DEFENSEMEN: B+. Denver finished with 21 shots (33 for the weekend), which is a tribute to this group and to a smaller degree the forwards who came back to help on D.
Like Friday, the Pioneers rarely sustained pressure in the offensive zone.
As noted above, Wingels was great and Matt Joyaux continues to improve. Taylor Richart has been very solid the first half of the season but Saturday wasn’t one of his better games.
GOALTENDING: A-. The first goal was in the top corner (was he screened by Richart?) and the second came on a rebound after Williams made one of the best saves of his career. He had no chance to make that save.
Definitely a solid return in net for Williams, who stopped 19 of 21 (.906) after being banged up the past couple weeks.
He didn’t face a lot of difficult shots, but he did a great job of controlling his rebounds and freezing the puck when necessary.
LINEUP CHANGES: As expected, senior Bryon Paulazzo took the place of Coleman, who will miss substantial time with an upper body injury.
Paulazzo has been solid for four years up front for the RedHawks, as he can dish out punishment and score.
The other 11 forwards and the six defensemen remained the same from Friday, and this may be the blueline corps Blasi sticks with the second half of the season.
The play of the defense corps is the biggest positive the team can take out of this weekend.
Williams’ play is also encouraging. One would think he and McKay will rotate in net moving forward.
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