October 17, 2013 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Game of the Week: North Dakota at Miami

by Dave Starman/Columnist

OXFORD, Ohio — Marquee matchups are worth waiting for. This one was in the works since December 2011.

I was in a rink in Camrose, Alberta, getting ready to watch Team USA play Switzerland in a 2012 WJC pre-tourney game when I got a call from Ross Molloy, then VP of Remote Production for CBS Sports Network. Ross was starting to finilize some things for the future NCHC schedule on CBSSN and reality set in.

"Hey partner, opening weekend of the NCHC, we have some choices on games and here they are." As soon as I heard North Dakota at Miami, I said, "That's our game, that's the one we should do to kick off the NCHC coverage."

So here we are, almost two years later and a lot of hard work by a lot of people is about to become reality. What is also about to become a reality is, this will be a conference where every game counts. In conference and non-conference, games will matter because the competition inside the NCHC and outside of it around college hockey has never been better.

That leads us to two powerhouse programs and a live prime time game between them at 7 p.m. Friday night from Miami. Miami comes off a home-and-home sweep of Ohio State, and North Dakota comes in after posting a win and a tie against the improved Vermont Catamounts.

Here are some things to look for in the game.

For Miami: There are the big three of Austin Czarnik, Sean Kuraly and Riley Barber. Czarnik has established himself as one of the top 5 players in the NCAA, and Barber and Kuraly are not far behind. Because of how Czarnik has raised his game after two terrific seasons, he makes the other two better, and the three have established a culture in the dressing room of making sure what gets done is done right, on and off the ice.

They are young and a little inexperienced on the backline, and in games played at a track-meet pace that could present a challenge. For Miami, watch it to make a big effort to control the pace. That means, making sure that, if it is there, they take the chance, but when in doubt move it in and let their tenacity pin teams in. The Red Hawks are four lines deep, which helps in this area, and they have a nice blend of skill, hockey sense, compete level and depth on the roster.

The strength of Miami is up front, which is not a new concept. It will be, however, for North Dakota, which hasn't seen a ton of Miami in recent years. But what Miami brings should remind ND of a smaller-rink version of Minnesota or Colorado College. There are similarities in the way these three play, especially when it comes to offensive transition and speed coming between the blue lines.

Where Miami is deep is down the middle, with three natural centers all on the wing at the moment in Barber, Murphy and Kevin Morris. Morris, whose dad has had a very successful career as a coach both at Clarkson and currently with the Manchester Monarchs (AHL), is a smart player who become an important cog in the wheel. His sister was the captain at Wisconsin during one of its national championship runs.

Blake Coleman and Connor Murphy are they type of glue guys Miami has always had, along the lines of Trent Vogelhuber, Alden Hirschfeld, Curtis McKenzie, and Justin Vaive. They do their job, play hard, and generally wreak havoc on an opponents game plan.

How the Miami defense handles the aggressive attack philosophy of North Dakota is part of the night's game within the game. The RedHawks are younger than usual on the back line, and do not have the veteran shutdown 'D' as they have had recently. Keep an eye on the pair of Trevor Hamilton and Ben Paulides if they stay together. They are guys who can necessitate ice bags being handed out in an opposing dressing room.

For North Dakota: One of the fun things is the huge alumni contingent from the Penticton Vees of the BCHL. Fred Harbinson, a former assistamt at St. Cloud State, is the head coach there and he certainly knows how to develop good players.

Jordan Schmaltz is continuing along a carefully plotted path by head coach Dave Hakstol. During a conversation we had many years ago about Brian Lee, then a NoDak defenseman and first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, Hakstol said, “The fact that a kid gets drafted in the first round doesn’t mean he is a great player right now. It means that someone thinks down the road he can be a really special player.”

That sits as one of the top three quotes given to me in my 11 years doing college hockey games on TV, and Hakstol is right on. Schmaltz has many tools that will make him a really good NHL defenseman, and where he has taken strides, like his teammate Dillon Simpson, is in the development of his foot work and skating. That figures in for both kids this weekend, as Miami brings a relentless offensive attack that will make even the most fluid of skaters a little uncomfortable behind their own blueline.

Up front, North Dakota lost a lot of offense but, as Hakstol referred to earlier this week, they lost a lot of weight. This isn’t a Weight Watchers pitch, this is fact. North Dakota teams were always big teams and thick teams and that isn’t the case just yet. It has a lot of youngsters that figure to fill out as their NCAA careers move on, but the line “we’re a little lighter than usual” just stuck with me from our talk with the coach this week.

One thing North Dakota brings is intensity. I have rarely, if ever, seen it in a game where it was not the better team physically. Maybe it has something to do with putting the sweater on, but Hakstol’s teams don’t give you an inch of ice you didn’t pay a price to earn. Its physical game is part of the piece this weekend because Miami’s elite guys are not giants. While it is early and fatigue is not an issue yet, when physical force consistently leans on smaller players, eventually it has an effect.

Overall, the game comes down to the offensive proficiency of the RedHawks against what looks to be a defense that can be the best in college hockey once the pieces fall into place. The pedigree of the players on the North Dakota blueline makes it more of a polished group than you might be led to believe.

One fun fact. The last time NoDak played a game in Ohio, their three goal scorers in the game were Jonathan Towes, T.J. Oshie, and Drew Stafford. That’s impressive.

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