CCHA's Top Teams Also Tops in the National Polls
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
If the WCHA is still the most dominant conference in college hockey, someone seems to have forgotten to tell the CCHA.
Already boasting the defending national champion Michigan State Spartans, the CCHA now lays claim to the top two ranked teams in the nation — the Miami RedHawks and the Michigan Wolverines. And with a combined 15-1-0 record that includes a perfect 10-0-0 record against fellow league members, it's hard to argue with the pollsters' assessment.
But what can easily be lost in each team's stellar start to the season is the uncertainty each team faced — and continues to face — in this season's earliest days.
Mere minutes into the season, Miami head coach Enrico Blasi and his Redhawks team were faced with the prospect of playing without Nathan Davis, their 50-point scorer from a year ago who suffered a shoulder injury in the season's opening period. Meanwhile, legendary coach Red Berenson faced the challenge of preparing a Michigan team composed of twelve freshmen and only two seniors for one of the nation's toughest early season schedules — a schedule that has included contests against Boston College, Boston University, and Minnesota.
Certainly, that 15-1-0 combined record is starting to look even more impressive.
"This year has been far and away our biggest challenge," admitted Berenson, who has coached his alma mater for almost a quarter of a century. "We lost so many good players, so we have definitely focused more on teaching rather than just coaching. It's been good for the coaches and good for the team as well."
Blasi, too, stressed a reliance on a greater team concept.
"We're fortunate to have great leadership," said Blasi, who will lead his alma mater through 2017 after signing an extension in the offseason. "The main thing is that we're preparing well. There is more to our program than winning games — as students and as citizens of Miami University, with off-ice responsibilities to our community."
One of those leaders for the RedHawks this year? Senior forward Ryan Jones, who has quickly amassed eight goals and 11 points through eight games this season, forcing himself onto the list of early season Hobey Baker hopefuls. But Blasi was quick to note that it would not be appropriate to praise one player over another this season.
"Everybody has a purpose, everybody has a role within the game," said Blasi. "Everyone is equally as important — even the guys not on the ice. Our focus is on our family, our brotherhood, and our team. When you buy into that concept, certain individuals appear as far as stats. But that's for [the media] to look at. Our focus is just on being the best team we can be. That's all you can ask for.
"We're a family."
The constitution of this year's Miami family certainly differs on paper from the Michigan family. As already mentioned, this Michigan family is young and inexperienced. But even Berenson — who has coached his fair share of rookie stars during his career — is impressed.
"The thing about the freshmen is that you know that they're going to make mistakes, but I've been impressed with every one of them," said Berenson. "Some of them are playing a pretty big role on the team. We've needed them because half our forwards are freshmen and half our defensemen are freshmen. So they've done a good job.
"Did I anticipate where we'd be, looking at our schedule with eight of our first 12 games on the road? There's no way."
Of course, much like Miami has been able to rely on leadership from players such as Ryan Jones, Nino Musitelli, and Mitch Ganzak, Michigan has its go-to leaders as well.
"When we made [Kevin] Porter the captain, it was an easy decision because he was the guy, he does it every day in practice, he works hard on the ice and off the ice," said Berenson, who also praised senior forward Chad Kolarik and junior defenseman Mark Mitera for their leadership this season. "And he's embraced this captaincy in a very good way and been a very strong leader for these young kids. And then for him to be able to go out and perform the way he's performed, that says it all."
Like Jones, Porter has emerged as an early season Hobey candidate as well. The two stars have identical point-scoring statistics, with eight goals and three assists. But unfortunately for college hockey fans, these two players won't lead their Wolverines and RedHawks into battle against one another until the second weekend in February, when Miami hosts Michigan for a two game series in Oxford, Ohio.
And whether Miami and Michigan will remain the nation's one-two punch at that time remains to be seen, but certainly, each team hopes that their February showdown will be a tuneup for a promising March playoff run. Last year, after reaching the NCAA tournament, both the RedHawks and Wolverines failed to advance out of their respective regionals to the Frozen Four.
Still, make no mistake — these teams have plenty to deal with in the present, let alone worry about the Frozen Four. The season has barely begun, and in a comment that seems to aptly summarize each team's attitude, Blasi stated simply, "We learned a lot of lessons last year, but our expectations now are no different.
"And that's to play our butts off every time we step on the ice."