Friday, November 13, 2009

#1 Miami v. Ferris State

Coming off an impressive road sweep of then #4 Michigan, the #1 ranked Miami RedHawks return to the Goggin Ice Center tonight to faceoff against the Bulldogs of Ferris State University in a weekend CCHA series. Tonight's game will start at 7:35pm and the puck drops at 7:05pm tomorrow night. Both games can be seen live around the great state of Ohio on ONN. And, as an added bonus, tonight's game will be aired nationally on NHL Network.

Following the sweep of the Wolverines, the RedHawks retained their #1 ranking in all three major polls and have been perched atop the heap for the past six weeks. During that time, they have compiled an overall record of 8-1-1 (5-1 CCHA) and are off to an impressive start.

Located in Big Rapids, Mich., Ferris State (7-3, 2-2) is no stranger to playing Miami when they are highly ranked. In fact, they swept Miami's record-setting 2007-08 team in Big Rapids. That team finished 33-8-1 and was #1 for much of the regular season. And, they will not be intimidated coming into hostile Steve Cady Arena where they are 3-2-1 all-time against Miami including a shootout win and a regulation win last November. To illustrate the intensity of the student section in Oxford, check out this recent quote from Michigan junior goaltender Bryan Hogan, when asked about playing in Steve Cady Arena.

“Those fans are ruthless,” Hogan said. “And the warm-ups were the worst part of the game. Every time your own guy scored on you, they’d cheer. So our team had a little thing, I’d tell them, ‘Make sure you guys hit me and don’t score during warm-ups.’ They’re crazy.” The Michigan Daily

Though Ferris has had the better of the play of late, Miami is 6-3-1 against the Bulldogs in the last ten meetings and head coach Enrico Blasi (Miami '94) is 13-8-3 all-time against the 2003 CCHA Champions.

Ferris State is coached by Bob Daniels (Michigan State '82) who has spent each of his 18 years as a head coach in Big Rapids compiling a credible 276-324-63 record including capturing the school's only CCHA regular season championship in 2003. Not bad for a school that has just one Division I program. Oh, and the '03 team featured former Anaheim Duck and current Pittsburgh Penguin Chris Kunitz who scored 35 goals and had 79 points in 42 games for a Bulldog team that averaged 4.48 goals per game.

Alas, scoring goals has become an Achilles heel for the Bulldogs as they've struggled to put the puck in the net. Last season, Ferris State finished 46th (of 58) in the nation averaging just 2.37 goals per game. However, Daniels feels the solution to the problem lies in the locker room and can be improved just by getting better performances out of guys who have done it before.

“We had an awful lot of firepower returning last year and we do again this year, but we struggled offensively last year and I think the reason is the number of players that had sub-par years. The answers to the offensive difficulties lie within our locker room right now.”

Offensively, the Bulldogs return 11 of their top 14 point producers and are led by senior forwards Blair Riley (Kamloops, B.C.) and Aaron Lewicki (Livonia, Mich.) with eight points apiece. Local product, and senior captain, Cody Chupp (Big Rapids, Mich.) is also contributing with seven points in his first ten games. Chupp is in his second season as captain, but is one of the players that saw a considerable drop-off in production from his sophomore season when he scored 11 goals and 30 points to just 7 goals and 12 points a year ago. If he can turn it around, the Bulldogs will be able to ice two talented lines that will make it more difficult for opposing coaches to match lines against them. Thus far, Ferris is averaging 3.3 goals per game though they have yet to play a team as talented as the RedHawks. In fact, of their seven wins, six have come within the friendly confines of Ewigleben Ice Arena and College Hockey News ranks their strength of schedule at just 43rd while Miami has played the 4th most difficult schedule in the nation.

It will be interesting to see if beating up on cupcakes like Connecticut (2-6), Canisius (4-6), Bowling Green (0-7-1) and Robert Morris (2-6) has prepared the Bulldogs for the next two weeks of CCHA play where, obviously, they get Miami this weekend then are home for Ohio State in a week.

However, the strength of the Bulldogs appears to be in net where a two-headed monster may await the RedHawks. While Daniels has stated publicly that he'd like to go with one goaltender, the play of both his netminders is making that difficult. Tonight's likely starter, junior Pat Nagle (Bloomfield, Mich.), is 3-2 with a 1.58 goals-against average and sparkling 93.8 save percentage. On most teams, that should be enough to earn a starting nod every night. However, sophomore Taylor Nelson (Regina, Sask.) has been equally strong starting 4-1 with a nearly identical numbers (1.78, 93.1) indicating the Bulldogs play a stout defensive game no matter who is in net. Clearly, they will pose a challenge for the RedHawk forwards and it will be important for the defenseman to get pucks to the net allowing Miami to use their size and strength to their benefit.

Last week, while Miami was finishing off Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Bulldogs welcomed CCHA doormat Bowling Green to Big Rapids where they swept the Falcons by 5-1 and 3-2 scores. In doing so, two Bulldogs were honored as CCHA Players of the Week. First, sophomore defenseman Brett Wysopal (LaGrange Park, Ill.) was 1-3-4 scoring a shorthanded goal that proved to be the game-winner on Saturday. Additionally, freshman Travis Ouellette (Windsor, Ont.) had three goals on the weekend with a powerplay tally on Friday that also stood as the game-winner. For their efforts, Wysopal and Ouellette were named the CCHA Defensive and Rookie Players of the Week.

Miami enters the weekend on an absolute roll. Fresh off consecutive road sweeps of Northern Michigan and Michigan, they are playing stout defense in front of sophomore Cody Reichard (Celina, Ohio) and getting contributions from every line, every class. Consider that on Friday, two seniors, Jarod Palmer (Fridley, Minn.) and Brandon Smith (Pepper Pike, Ohio) scored all three goals. While on Saturday the juniors and freshmen took over with juniors Pat Cannone (Bayport, N.Y.) and Andy Miele (Grosse Point Woods, Mich.) each netting goals while freshmen Reilly Smith (Mimico, Ont.) and Curtis McKenzie (Golden, B.C.) accounted for the other three tallies with Smith scoring his first two collegiate goals.

If Miami remains as balanced as they have, 11 players have already scored multiple goals, it will prove difficult for teams to match their ability to send wave after wave of talented forwards toward their net. Factor in Miami's tremendous defensive effort thus far with sophomores Will Weber (Gaylord, Mich.) and Cameron Schilling (Carmel, Ind.) able to move the puck out of the zone via the pass or on the strength of their wheels and you have something to build upon.

As for the net, Cody Reichard has cemented himself as the #1 netminder of this team. However, sophomore Connor Knapp (York, N.Y.) will remain a major contributor and I expect to see him in net tomorrow night even though Reichard has started the past four games. In fairness, Knapp was ill two weeks ago in Marquette and Reichard has been playing so well, that Blasi elected to stay with the hot hand for both games against the Wolverines last weekend.

Fearless predictions...

The biggest obstacle to a Miami sweep is a letdown. Two straight road sweeps and now home to face a solid, but unspectacular, Ferris State team could be troublesome. Can they come out with the same electric energy they displayed for 120 minutes last weekend? If not, I think they are susceptible to drop one of the games this weekend. That, and the fact that Ferris plays Miami tough (Miami leads the all-time series just 41-39-13) and are 3-2-1 all-time at Steve Cady Arena. But, if Miami comes to play, they should win on both nights and I think they will.

Friday - Miami 4-1
Saturday - Miami 3-2