Don't Count Miami Out Yet
by Ryan Lambert/Columnist
The problem with the entire western part of the country is that, at this point, everything seems kind of like a foregone conclusion. You probably see a Minnesota/Michigan final in the Big Ten. You probably see a Ferris State/Minnesota State final in the WCHA. You probably see a North Dakota/Western final in the NCHC.
Obviously, though, these are one-game playoffs we're talking about here, and therefore “anything can happen.” Seemingly-unbeatable Boston College, for instance, was beaten not only in their best-of-three series with Notre Dame, but in fact only has one win from its last five games. Things get a little weird this time of year, is the point, and there is one surprise in particular that appears to be at least a little bit likely: Miami winning the NCHC.
Now, the argument against this is that the RedHawks have been pretty well awful for much of the season. This is absolutely true. They've been awful. Six wins from 24 in the NCHC doesn't exactly present a compelling case for their future success, particularly as they run up against North Dakota on Friday, then get the winner of Denver/WMU the next day in a theoretical conference final.
The argument for it is simple. They cannot physically be this bad forever. They got points from eight out of 10 non-conference games this season, three of which were against likely NCAA teams (Wisconsin, Providence), and they more or less ran the show in most of them anyway. The thing that was their biggest weakness in those games they failed to win was largely the thing that has been their biggest bugaboo all season: Goaltending.
Miami is typically a goaltending and defensive factory, and their netminders consequently tend to post very, very good numbers. Last year, for instance, with these same two goalies they have on the roster this time around, the RedHawks posted a combined .933 save percentage as a team. This season, with the same personnel, it's just .897. Moreover, Ryan McKay and Jay Williams have only combined to post a save percentage in any individual game eight times since December. Which is to say it's been a bit of a disaster back there. In fact, it's really Williams dragging down the situation, as he has a save percentage of just .882 in his last eight appearances.
McKay has fared much better since he missed three straight games in late February, and potentially got his head on straight. Five games, and a .917 save percentage in them. The team still allows too many shots in front of him (157, or 31.4 per), but he's stopping far more of them now than he was for most of the season. And really, McKay has, like Steven Summerhays at Notre Dame, really only had a bad stretch. Unlike Summerhays, it lasted perhaps far longer than Rico Blasi would like (nine games, during which time he posted a ), and all but two of them were against conference opponents, during which time he posted an .883 save percentage and necessitated the aforementioned and very understandable lack of playing time. And clearly nine games is a big chunk of a season in which he played 24 games, but if you leave them out, his save percentage is .928, which is more or less in line with what the team did last year.
So what you're seeing when you look at that team record, I think, is that Blasi rolled both goaltenders early, McKay won the job and was dominant through late November (.934) but then faltered. Hence, the rotation returned and McKay was horrible under it, but Williams couldn't seize the job either due to that rough eight-game stretch of his. Thus McKay was re-handed the reins and has been serviceable since.
The RedHawks, of course, will probably need him to be a little more than serviceable against a North Dakota team that took six of eight points in the season series, and outscored them 18-12 (though nine of those goals against were in a single game, in the logical bottoming-out of the team's goaltending problems). But at the same time, he might actually get a little bit of help from his teammates this time around, which is something he decidedly did not do in earlier meetings.
Another, less-publicized problem through which Miami has suffered this year is that they're just not as deep up front as they have been in the past. That's reflected by the fact that the drop-off in points between Austin Czarnik (45 points) and Riley Barber (43) to the next-biggest producer on the team — Sean Kuraly, with 27 — is 16. This is a team that simply has not scored enough (only 105 goals versus a national average of 102.6), and more to the point hasn't had the puck enough (1,176, or 23rd in shots-for nationally) to help their goaltenders overcome the all-too-frequent tough nights. That's mostly due to the fact that during that fallow stretch, their offense typically eluded them as well, but it's made a big comeback in recent weeks. They've gotten north of 30 shots on goal in eight of the last 11 games, and also blasted nine goals past a St. Cloud side that doesn't give up a lot of shots last weekend. That on just 65 shots, which might be an indicator that their low season-long PDO (just 98.7, or 42nd in the country) could be normalizing at just the right time.
Knocking off St. Cloud might not have been as big a deal as it probably should be, just because the Huskies, good though they may have been this season, underwhelmed on home ice a surprising amount. Knocking off North Dakota, though, would be a whole different animal altogether. It seems likely that they have a far better chance of doing so now than they're likely to be given credit for.
Michigan: JT Compher was the Big Ten Rookie of the Year, to the surprise of just about no one. Getting 31 points will usually get that done.
Michigan State: Speaking of league honors, Jake Chelios, Greg Wolfe, and Jake Hildebrand all pulled Big Ten honorable mention. That feels like it's not good enough for Hildebrand, who was excellent this year behind a team that was badly outshot most nights. He faced more shots than anyone in the conference and still finished tied for 19th in save percentage.
Minnesota: The fact that Mike Reilly got drafted at 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds as a defenseman is mind-boggling. He's currently up to 6-1 and 185, and he's a big-time difference-maker, so it seems like the Blue Jackets' faith in him is paying off already.
Ohio State: Here's a real nice story about Ryan Dzingel having his big season after finding out last year that his father had cancer.
Penn State: They're going with Matt Skoff against Michigan on Thursday. I really think this team has the juice to be pretty competitive in that first game.
Wisconsin: Seems like Jake McCabe will be good to go on Friday for the Big Ten second round, as he was held out with a head laceration on Saturday. Mike Eaves said he might not have even been able to get a helmet on with all the swelling.
Colorado College: The Tigers made this series closer than it really had any right to be, but I guess that was the theme of last weekend overall, eh? Good for these guys to keep it interesting, anyway.
Denver: While this headline is technically true and I think that winning the NCHC title isn't outside the realm of possibility for Denver (mainly because of Sam Brittain), saying they're “two wins away” from the tournament is also a little bit presumptuous. Everyone's in tough to win this league.
Miami: The fact that Miami scored four goals in the final period on Saturday is really very crazy, especially considering they did it on just 10 shots. By that token, Justin Greenberg's goal with 2.6 seconds left to win it is, in a way, almost fitting.
Minnesota-Duluth: Really tough way to have your season end. If you hold your opponent to just 11 shots, you usually expect to give up fewer than four goals.
Nebraska-Omaha: Omaha had four breakaways and a handful of odd-man rushes, and couldn't beat Sam Brittain in Game 3. That's after he gave up one goal on 31 shots the night before. The kid really is that good, irrespective of the Mavs offense.
North Dakota: It was one heck of a decision by Dave Hakstol to put that line of Stephane Pattyn, Connor Gaarder, and Derek Rodwell back together for Sunday's Game 3 after a few weeks apart. They scored twice, and NoDak is now 11-2-1 when they're together this season.
St. Cloud: Disappointing series loss for the Huskies and they're probably going to make the tournament, but no one likes to sit at home while other teams play for titles.
Western Michigan: Wanna talk about the difference between Western and Duluth this weekend? The Broncos went 3 for 8 on the power play. The Bulldogs 0 for 7. That'll do it.
Alaska: That first game of the series was something else. Pretty nice comeback, especially considering it took the Nanooks just 18 seconds to answer a late go-ahead goal.
Alaska-Anchorage: But I think this playoff series win more than makes up for losing the Governor's Cup a week earlier. Especially because the Seawolves won a pair of elimination games to do it.
Bemidji State: The best way to answer an 8-0 loss is to win the next night. But that's not always possible. Making the team that sweeps you out of the season do it in double overtime is, I guess, some amount of consolation.
Bowling Green: The Falcons might just have the quietest 18-win season in the country this year. When did that happen?
Ferris State: The Bulldogs are really trying to pump up interest around town in getting out to the Final Five, which is being played just 55 miles away. Student buses and cheap tickets abound on campus, but they're in the NCAA tournament regardless, so this weekend is just a nice bonus to play for.
Michigan Tech: The Huskies looked like they might make a game of it in the third period on Saturday with a quick power play goal, making the game 3-1 and officially interesting. But then they conceded about two minutes later, and that was the end of that.
Minnesota State: Yeah, Bryce Gervais has 10 goals and five assists in the Mavs' last 12 games, and they haven't lost in 11 straight. So I guess his contributions are important. That's after starting the season with eight points in 25 games.
Northern Michigan: Congrats to the Wildcats for doing better than most people would have thought, considering the strength the Mavericks have shown all season. They were 2 for 2 on the power play, but only 2 for 4 on the penalty kill, so it seems special teams giveth and taketh away.
Player of the Week
Five of Gervais's points came this weekend (three goals and two assists). That is a pretty good time to score 20 percent of your goals on the year.
The Goal of the Week
Here's Kevin Gravel scoring with 0.1 seconds left to force OT on Friday.