By John Lachmann
OXFORD, Ohio – Whenever Miami needed a goal on Saturday, it turned to Alex Wideman.
The sophomore forward assisted on the RedHawks' first goal and scored its other marker in Miami's 2-2 tie with Northern Michigan at Cady Arena.
And Wideman converted the clinching penalty shot in the ensuing shootout, vaulting the No. 5 RedHawks into first place in the CCHA.
Wideman was playing in just his fourth game of the season and his second straight since contracting mononucleosis.
Wideman has two goals and three assists for five points on the season. He finished his freshman season with nine points in 29 games.
Ryan Kesti gave the Wildcats the early lead with a bad-angle shot six minutes into the first period.
Freshman forward Sean Kuraly scored off a one-time pass from freshman forward Riley Barber on a 5-on-3 with 7:33 left in the opening frame to tie the score. Wideman picked up the secondary assist for feeding Barber.
But Northern Michigan (4-4-2) regained the lead on a two-man advantage of its own when Stephan Vigier knocked in a rebound off a shot by Matt Thurber with 2:40 remaining in the first period.
That score would hold for over 40 minutes. With 2:13 left in regulation, Wideman shot the puck in off of NMU goalie Jared Coreau to force overtime.
Barber missed his penalty shot to open the shootout, but sophomore forward Austin Czarnik scored on his trademark backhander and Wideman iced it.
Miami freshman goalie Jay Williams stopped both shots he faced in the shootout and he finished with 23 saves in the game.
The RedHawks (6-2-2), who will host Michigan State next weekend, remained unbeaten at home this season (4-0-2).
ANALYSIS: Miami was thoroughly outplayed in the first period and it cost the RedHawks the win.
Northern Michigan, a better team than it showed on Friday, came out with intensity in the first period and Miami looked a little flat.
The RedHawks were the better team by far the final 45 minutes but they were only able to get the puck in the net once in that span. They were outshot, 15-5 in the first period but the shots favored Miami, 28-12 the remainder of the game.
And that's the bright side: Miami once again played its best hockey at the end of the game – a theme that's becoming common this season.
I've been critical of Curtis McKenzie at times the past two seasons, mainly because it's obvious he has talent and I feel he can produce more offensively.
But there's no one on the team that I would trust to have my back, and he did a great job of playing the team enforcer role this weekend with the exception of a dumb penalty on Friday.
He's playing with Czarnik and Barber on the top line, and Northern Michigan took plenty of shots at Czarnik this weekend. Fortunately, McKenzie was there to stick up for his linemate.
Intimidation is – and always will be – a significant part of the game, and players like McKenzie are necessary to defend their teammates from thuggery.
McKenzie came to Czarnik's aid on Friday when Jake Baker was cheap-shotting Czarnik, and he absolutely buried Reed Seckel cleanly 13 seconds into overtime (the funny thing was Seckel stayed down on the ice for several minutes and when he finally skated to the bench he stared McKenzie down for some reason).
With a pair of garden gnome-sized star forwards, McKenzie's role is crucial and if the league didn't already know that McKenzie will make players that run Czarnik and Barber pay, they were reminded of that this weekend.
When I first looked at the season schedule, keeping in mind the youth of this team, I was hoping for a 5-5 record in the first 10 games. Three wins vs. Colgate and Providence would've been fantastic, and I assumed Miami would only win one on its Michigan-Ferris road trip and split vs. NMU, which has always given the RedHawks fits.
Miami is currently 6-2-2 and will probably continue to hang around the five spot in the national polls, which has to exceed even the biggest optimist's expectations.
The fans are more excited about this team, there are more of them showing up each night and this team is just beginning to show its potential.
FORWARDS: C. More specifically, that would be an ‘F' for the first period, a ‘C+' for the second and an ‘A-' for the remainder of the game.
The puck clearly wasn't going in for Miami, and nights like that happen (the 70-degree temperature outside Saturday didn't look like it helped ice conditions much), but they looked completely out of sync early.
Wideman was fantastic the first weekend of the season and he was obviously a major factor on Saturday, and Kuraly – his linemate – is starting to show why he scored 32 goals in 54 games in juniors last season.
Sophomore Cody Murphy has been a more offensive version of Matt Tomassoni, killing penalties, blocking shots, running people over and generally creating havoc, and he was all over the ice in this game.
DEFENSEMEN: B. I appreciate good defensive play and like to think I watch the blueliners more than the casual fan, but this
is truly a difficult group to evaluate without the benefit of film.
Except for freshman Matthew Caito, who blocked a team-high four shots and is really growing in both his defensive and power play point role, takes few chances and generally ensures nothing bad happens in front of the goalie.
I'm learning to appreciate freshman Chris Joyaux, who was good at dishing out punishment and keeping the puck out of harm's way.
Senior Joe Hartman picked up an assist and NMU was held to 25 shots.
Northern Michigan's goals came on an awkward-angle shot and a 5-on-3, and while it seemed like Kesti was a little too open on the former Williams should've made that save.
Like the forward and Williams, the blueliners played better as the game progressed.
GOALTENDING: B. This game was a microcosm of Williams' season. He allowed ample rebounds early but settled down after the first period and was ultimately solid. Not bad, not phenomenal, just good, and he gave Miami a chance to win.
The first goal he should've stopped and the second was a good shot on the two-man advantage, the second 5-on-3 goal he's allowed in as many nights.
In six of his eight outings he's allowed two or three goals, and he surrendered one and four in the other two.
Overall his goals-against average is now 2.50 and he has a .911 save percentage, and both are good but not great numbers.
LINEUP CHANGES: There was only one – junior forward Bryon Paulazzo was benched in favor of freshman Alex Gacek.
It was an interesting move considering how much bigger Northern Michigan is and how the Wildcats pushed Czarnik around on Friday.
Gacek is another Blasi-sized player and Paulazzo is one of Miami's more physical forwards.
The flip side to that argument is perhaps Blasi was thinking getting another speed guy in the lineup could make a slower NMU team's life even more difficult.
Plus Paulazzo, after recording two goals and two assists in the first four games, has not recorded a point since and he seems to play better after sitting out a game. Gacek has also made major strides since the first weekend of the season.
Blasi played sophomores Jimmy Mullin and Blake Coleman together for a shift late in the third period, perhaps as an experiment to jump-start the pair's offense going forward.
Mullin was tried at left wing on the top line early in the season and now is languishing on the fourth line, and Coleman – who began the season with four goals in four games – has no goals and one assist in his last six.
With Mullin's talent he should be on the ice more, and maybe playing with Coleman on the second line (and the third on that makeshift line was senior Marc Hagel) could work out for both players.
Freshman Ryan McKay was the third goalie again on Saturday but he did dress, so hopefully we'll see him back in net next weekend.