The Surprise of the CCHA

“We have very, very strong leadership.”

According to Miami of Ohio head coach Mark Mazzoleni, that’s one reason why his team is undefeated in CCHA play and flirting atop the standings with the likes of Michigan State and the national champion Michigan Wolverines.

Miami has only three senior players to lead its squad, but Mazzoleni says those seniors play consistently well.

“Barry [Schutte] and Tom [White] are players who come to play every night.”

Schutte, a 6’1″ left winger, has only two goals and two assists — and only one penalty for two minutes. White, another big left winger at 6’2″, has no goals and three assists, and ten penalty minutes. But Mazzoleni says there’s something that can’t be found in the statistics that makes these two team leaders.

“Barry and Tom really talk to the guys. They know how to keep the team focused. And the guys listen.”

The Miami team was disappointed with last season. Hosting the national championship tournament, Miami had hoped for a better showing in the CCHA playoffs. This season, most pre-season polls picked Miami to linger in the middle of the CCHA pack. Mazzoleni says that this season felt different right away, that the coaches and players alike are better prepared than they were last year at this time, and that hockey in Miami is just more fun this season.

“We weren’t happy with our year last year. Both coaches and players re-evaluated the situation. The coaches talk after games and after practices about how different this team is. They’re [the team] a really enjoyable group to be around. They work hard. We don’t have to prod them to get things done.”

The team’s work ethic factors into Miami’s success so far this season.

“We’ve been able to play four consistent lines each night. We’re playing more disciplined; we’ve cut down on penalty minutes. We’re not taking a lot of stupid penalties.”

When you add the hottest goaltending duo in the CCHA to this equation, you have a team that’s tough to beat. Junior goalies Trevor Prior and Adam Lord are one and two, respectively, in the CCHA in save percentage — Prior sits on top with an amazing mark of .964. Mazzoleni is particularly impressed with Prior, who is playing only his second full year of CCHA hockey.

“Trevor’s first year in action was last year,” says Mazzoleni. “People forget that he had to sit out his first year for residency purposes.”

Before playing for Miami, Prior played for the Waterloo Siskins, a Canadian major junior team.

Adam Lord is a gift from the now-defunct (but respectfully remembered) University of Illinois-Chicago Flames. Because of the demise of the whole program, Lord and the rest of his former UIC teammates were eligible to play right away for new teams. That league experience has helped him maintain a .935 save percentage in CCHA play. The goaltenders have split Miami’s six CCHA games, each playing three.

Such performances have kept Miami’s CCHA opponents to just seven goals in six games — stingy, and necessary, considering Miami’s relatively low offensive numbers. Sophomore center Randy Robitaille has six goals and four assists, but no one else on the team has scored more than three goals. Overall, Miami has just 23 goals in CCHA play. Conference-leading Michigan has 40 goals, while Michigan State — just behind Miami in the CCHA standings — has 38.

Another reason for Miami’s success (or maybe a symptom of its success?) is the team’s plus/minus numbers. Remarkably, there isn’t a single Miami player who’s in the minus. Sophomore defenseman Ryan Brindley has a plus/minus of +14 overall and +10 in league play. That leads all CCHA players in the overall standings, and ties with Michigan’s John Madden for league play. It’s all part of the new Miami discipline. And maybe a better early schedule.

Mazzoleni says that part of the problem Miami had last year was a tough early schedule, playing Michigan, Michigan State and Lake Superior State, as well as tough non-league opponents like Boston University and Vermont. While Miami often played well against those teams, they didn’t win much early last season. Playing well only goes so far when the team has few points to show for it.

“During that tough part of our schedule, the players lost confidence. Winning early in this season has definitely been a confidence-booster,” Mazzoleni said.

Even though the team is ranked in the top ten in most college hockey polls, Mazzoleni says he doesn’t pay much attention to polls, especially this early in the season.

“I’ve never been one to put credibility in the ranking. They do help us show we’re doing something right. The players see it as a reward.”

Coach Mazzoleni and his Miami team know it’s too early in the season to make predictions.

“I can’t look too far ahead,” says Mazzoleni. “I don’t look much beyond this weekend.”


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