Team of the Week: Miami
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
Miami's season-opening games against Ohio State didn't count the way they used to. As former CCHA rivals, Miami and OSU used to play for a lot more than in-state bragging rights.
Those bragging rights belong to Miami after sweeping the Buckeyes in a home-and-home pair that started with a 6-2 win Friday night in Columbus before a 6-3 victory Saturday in Oxford. Starting its season with a pair of resounding wins earned Miami the first College Hockey News Team of the Week honor for the 2013-14 season.
"It's always important to win games against an in-state rival. We had a nice win Friday at their place and then did the same coming back home," Miami coach Rico Blasi said. "They're not conference games anymore obviously, but they're still important for us to win and to keep guys moving in that process of becoming better players and a better team."
The RedHawks, one of college hockey's most successful programs in recent memory, enter the campaign with the loftiest of expectations. In the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, Miami is expected to compete for regular-season and postseason championships. Moreover, the RedHawks are widely considered a favorite to land in Philadelphia next April for the Frozen Four.
Despite these expectations, Blasi's club is among the youngest teams in the country. Picking up a pair of wins to start the season was especially important for the inexperienced, albeit talented, group to come together. Blasi was especially happy with the performances of his young defensemen and goaltenders. The RedHawks' blue line featured just one upperclassman, junior Ben Paulides, in the wins against OSU.
"We only have two seniors, so we are young, especially on defense," Blasi said. "The way the game is called now, there really isn't a lot you can do to a forward to stop him. Playing defense now is all about making smart plays, making reads and skating. If you can't skate well, you're just going to get run over."
Against the Buckeyes, sophomore Riley Barber stole the show. His four-goal performance on Saturday led the RedHawks in their 6-3 win. Offensively, Miami is just as young as it is at the back. However, few teams in the country are as talented as Blasi's.
Barber played on a line with junior Austin Czarnik and senior Max Cook. The trio combined for 14 points in the wins against Ohio State. Sophomore center Sean Kuraly joins his gifted elders on the power play where the RedHawks were just as dangerous last weekend. A 4-for-10 performance in the games helped Miami establish early leads and put the Buckeyes away.
"We need all of our better players to step up for us," Blasi said. "Riley did last weekend. Obviously, he wasn't the only one. He understands that Austin Czarnik is a big part of what he does on the ice. Whether it's Riley, Austin or Sean Kuraly, guys like that, we're going to need our better players to makes plays while our younger guys come along."
Those key players for Miami have an equally important role in the development of the team's young defenseman. Adapting to the college game is especially difficult for defensemen as they adjust to a number of differences from lower levels. Players are better, of course, and they're stronger. Learning from inevitable mistakes and becoming better players is just part of the process.
Last weekend, Blasi saw his talented young defensemen influence a pair of important wins. The successes came with a bit failure that, taken the right way, will make them better players.
"I liked that they weren't afraid to try things," Blasi said. "I definitely saw some mistakes, but I didn't see them get discouraged when they got back out there. It's a transition. It helps seeing guys like Riley and Austin every day in practice. It's all part of the process we're going through. They need to get better every day, so they're better each weekend for games."
Another major test comes Miami's way next weekend with a pair of games in Oxford against new NCHC rival North Dakota.
The RedHawks expect to compete against the nation's best in 2013-14. Starting the year with two convincing wins against a club from a power conference is one thing, taking points from North Dakota in both clubs' first conference games of the season will give the country a better idea where the RedHawks stand.