Miami, Western Michigan Look for Spark Down Stretch
by Dave Starman/Columnist
Miami forward Sean Kuraly gets it. Those who follow Miami hockey regularly know the versatility that Kuraly has demonstrated in his tenure as a RedHawk. The versatility will be on display Friday night as Kuraly moves from his normal center ice position to once again take the left flank alongside super snipers Austin Czarnik and Sean Kuraly.
Kuraly understands what is needed of him by his linemates and his team as Miami looks to build on a 6-1 win in its last outing (at Colorado College). With the team looking up at the rest of the NCHC, coach Enrico Blasi looked over his battered lineup for a spark and found it last Saturday by putting his three most explosive offensive players together.
“I’m a guy who can go north-south, use my strength and speed and get these guys the puck,” said Kuraly following practice Thursday. “The key to playing with Barber and 'Z' is to be able to be different than they are and not be the third version of what they are. I think I bring that. It’s is what can make us successful.”
Barber and Kuraly were members of the US World Junior team that won gold last year in Ufa. They understand what it takes to win and how to do it in a short tournament. Czarnik provides an interesting intangible as he has started to grow into the captaincy in both a lead-by-example way and by being a more vocal leader in the dressing room.
Western Michigan comes to Oxford having swept Miami at Lawson Arena earlier this season. That was a series that saw the WMU penalty killing dominate the two-game set with three shorthanded goals and another goal just after a Miami power play expired. The Broncos bring an style reminiscent of North Dakota and Denver teams from the WCHA days, teams that can skate but also can physically knock you around for 120 minutes or more if needed.
The Broncos have gotten tremendous play recently from captain Chase Balisy and a no-name supporting cast that has demonstrated that you might know them when they get there, but you will remember them after they leave. While not dominating the league, the Broncos have shown that on any night they can be the hardest team to play against in the NCHC if not the NCAA with a combo of timely scoring and pure physicality.
The area of each team that has been up and down this season has been the goaltending. Each team has gotten brilliant games from the quartet of goalies between them, but has also suffered from subpar ones that have set them back. What is starting to show is that the position is solidifying on both ends.
Miami boasts a pair of sophomores in Jay Williams and Ryan McKay. Williams was terrific in the 6-1 win two weeks ago and McKay looks style-wise and confidence-wise that he is ready to finish strong. Western Michigan’s Lucas Hafner has answered the bell when retuning No. 1 Frank Slubowski has been erratic, but The Big Slubowski has proven he can win big games.
Friday night you can bet the ice bags will be distributed freely in both dressing rooms, as Miami will show no signs of backing down from the physical presence of WMU. Not having Blake Coleman in the lineup eliminates their top physical presence, but guys like Cody Murphy don’t let Miami get pushed around.
What to watch for Friday night is whether the new-look Miami power play can continue to catch lightning in a bottle after a 4 PPG game against CC in their last outing. It is also facing a WMU penalty kill that blocks shots, takes away lanes and knows that its up-ice pressure game is a huge key in not allowing the Miami power play to establish its way of play.
Another area to keep an eye on is the Miami top line. The left-handed shooting Kuraly gives the right shot centerman Czarnik a legit scorer on his other side. Barber, also a right shot, can tend to freelance to the left side for better shooting angles and Kuraly is pretty good driving the net off the RW side, protecting the puck and getting opportunities from the hard areas. WMU has good size and mobility on the back line but with the amount of ice the big Miami line gets, matchups for WMU on the back line could be tough.
WMU and its physical, relentless forecheck will make life a little challenging for Miami in its own end. What Miami has talked about to us this week is the need, as a team, to be better in its own end as a five-man unit. That means forwards in support of the puck down low, heads on swivels, shots blocked, and attention to detail. Miami saw in its win at CC what a good forecheck can do. How it handles WMU and the way it wants to establish pace, especially early, will go a long way to determining a winner.
The reality for both teams is that the season is now a six-week sprint to Minneapolis and the inaugural Frozen Faceoff to determine the first NCHC playoff champion. For WMU it is keeping consistent with its identity as a hard-nosed, go-forward, beat-you-up type of team. For Miami it is about re-establishing who it is as a team that can win with offense but can shut you down with solid back end play.
The clash of styles between these teams is always great to watch. Join us Friday night.
(The CCHA might be gone but its rivalries live on. CBS Sports Network is no stranger to the CCHA and their broadcast team of Ben Holden, Dave Starman and Shireen Saski has a combined 33 years of CCHA broadcast experience. Two teams with their names on the Mason Cup collide Friday night as Western Michigan takes on Miami in an important NCHC showdown. Game time is 7pm EST.)