February 14, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Miami-North Dakota Face Off Headed in Opposite Directions

by Dave Starman/Columnist

(Despite a loss last Saturday night, North Dakota is starting to show its mettle. Miami is starting to get healthy. They collide at The Ralph on Friday night with North Dakota looking to solidify a spot in the top 15 of the Pairwise. Ben Holden, Dave Starman and Shireen Saski Starman on the call).

You can look at both teams and say, “Well, I didn’t expect each of these teams to be where they are.”

Miami, a preseason conference favorite, is in last place. North Dakota, who many thought were headed to a slightly down year based on who it lost from last season, is near the top. Now as the season enters the stretch run, both teams see themselves at different ends of the spectrum.

Miami will never use anything as an excuse but it has been banged up. The loss of Jimmy Mullin and Blake Coleman for extended periods of time have taken away a lot of the muscle and jam that the RedHawks play with. It is a young team that has high-end skill but has not been consistently able to shut it down in their own end.

You can see in their youth in kids like Justin Greenberg, Trevor Hamilton and Anthony Louis, a trio of young players who could be poised to be the future cornerstones of the program. Sophomores like Riley Barber and Sean Kuraly are members of a Gold Medal-winning World Junior Team for Team USA a year ago. Defenseman Matt Caito, thrust into a bigger role than the coaching staff might have wanted him in this early in his career, will be a rock solid part of this group next year.

With the skill they have, the RedHawks are dangerous, but consistency in their own end is where things have to improve. People talk about Miami and its lack of depth, but remember three future NHL players in Ryan Hartman, Patrick Sieloff and Connor Murphy were all Miami commits that decommitted to play in the CHL. Add those three USA NDTP alums to the core of this group and we are having a much different conversation.

North Dakota has been real good since December but its power play has been streaky. That is a concern among the coaching staff and the key there is working to take the pressure off the two units North Dakota uses and get everyone to simplify their game. They have not had consistent good looks and that is something that you can look for tonight to change as they have tinkered with alignments and personnel.

Where this game gets interesting is the matchup of two high-skill and speed guys like Barber and Austin Czarnik against an aggressive North Dakota defense corps that likes to pinch in the offensive zone. You can see on film that assistant coach Brad Berry has his D’s well-schooled in the rules of offensive zone pinches and the NoDak defense has shown great reliability in their roles there. Their decisions have been good. With speed demons like Barber and Czarnik on the ice, do these D’s get challenged more to make faster decisions? It is something worth watching.

Another great battle is the NoDak penalty kill and the Miami power play. Miami likes a 4- and sometimes 5-forward alignment on the PP to utilize the hand skills it has. North Dakota loves to be aggressive up ice and on the points when it comes to its PK pressure. Who flinches first in the battle to exert its strength here is a key part of the game.

For Miami, the season is now about them. How well they play, how well they can reconnect with the message they created for themselves preseason about living in and for the moment. They have an eight-game tuneup for the postseason, so for the RedHawks, the time is now for those who can lace the skates to set the tone.

For North Dakota it is also about itself but in a different manner. Home ice, a league regular-season championship, and a spot in the Pairwise are all attainable. Accolades matter in Grand Forks, and to once again quote former coach Dean Blais, “They don’t hang banners at The Ralph for participation.” While NoDak has had a good season, expectations always run high and that is something this team has been able to manage well and a part of its success. This is a business-like team with good focus, led by a captain in Dillon Simpson, who has shown a no-nonsense attitude.

The final push starts tonight as two proud programs continue along the path to the first ever NCHC Championship.

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