Miami back in first heading into showdown with Notre Dame

One year ago this week, the Miami RedHawks were sitting atop the CCHA standings, two points ahead of second-place Michigan State, three ahead of third-place Alaska.

What difference does a year make? Very little, unless you’re looking at second and third place.

Entering December 2009 and with 10 league games to their credit, the RedHawks were in first place a year ago this week.

It’s Dec. 2 and Miami is in first place again, having used its series with Western Michigan to jump over Notre Dame and Michigan, who played nonconference games last weekend. The RedHawks could have lengthened their lead even further with a sweep, but with one win, Miami has 24 points to Notre Dame’s 23 and Michigan’s 22.

A year ago, the RedHawks were 9-2-5 overall at the start of December with just one loss in CCHA play; this year they’re 9-4-3 with three league losses — and as many league wins (seven) as the second- and third-place teams. There are two key differences from last year, though: The Fighting Irish and the Wolverines each have two games in hand on Miami, and each may have something to say about the RedHawks running away with the conference title this season.

“I think we’re pretty much the same team we have been the last few years,” said Miami coach Enrico Blasi, who was gracious enough to take my phone call after practice Tuesday. I admit to feeling pretty bad about talking to Blasi so late in the season. I haven’t yet seen the RedHawks play in person, and I haven’t talked to Blasi before this week about his team.

“When we want to play at a high level, then we’re capable of doing that,” said Blasi. “If we’ve struggled this year, it’s putting 60 minutes together in some games.”

The RedHawks struggled against Western Michigan last Friday night, losing 5-2 to the team now coached by Blasi’s former assistant, Jeff Blashill. In that contest, the Broncos led 2-0 after one and finished the last six minutes of the third period with three unanswered goals. The following night, however, Miami turned the tables, winning 5-1 handily.

“It’s a matter of getting through certain games and making sure that we stay focused and hopefully put ourselves to play for a league title,” Blasi said, “and hopefully put ourselves in a position to play in the national tournament.

“We have two games before Christmas, and they should be exciting.”

There’s an understatement. This weekend, the RedHawks host the Irish, a series that pits the top two teams in the league and Miami’s No. 5 scoring offense against Notre Dame’s No. 9. By now, everyone knows that the RedHawks have the top line in the country in seniors Carter Camper (12-20–32) and Andy Miele (8-19–27) and sophomore Reilly Smith (11-8–19). The trio has scored more than half of Miami’s overall goals.

Blasi said that he’s not sure why everyone was so surprised by Camper’s out-of-the-gate performance this year. “He’s put up numbers every year he’s been here. These aren’t the ’80s anymore. He’s not a flashy player, so he’s not necessarily going to score the highlight-reel goal, not all the time.

“It’s nice to see seniors that decide to come back and decide to play their senior year rewarded,” Blasi added. “Miele, Camper and [Pat] Cannone, they could have easily jumped ship and they didn’t.” Cannone has seven goals and eight assists this season.

Blasi pointed to other Miami seniors who have stayed and been rewarded, like Andy Greene, Ryan Jones and Jarod Palmer, as role models for this year’s senior class. “It’s important not to lose sight that if you put your time in and you’re going to graduate, seniors should be leading the way.”

Miami won’t have the only seniors enjoying good final seasons in this weekend’s series. For Notre Dame, Ryan Guentzel (2-15–17), Ben Ryan (2-14–16) and Calle Ridderwall (7-4–11) are among the seniors leading the Fighting Irish committee-style scoring. Guentzel’s two goals are two more than he netted both his freshman and junior years, and are halfway to his career-high four-goal season when he was a sophomore.

Here’s an old-school, game-of-the-week-type look at this weekend’s series. The stats are overall. The numbers in parentheses following team stats are national rank per category.

  • Goals per game: ND 3.60 (9th); Miami 3.75 (t-5th)
  • Goals allowed per game: ND 2.73 (25th); Miami 2.12 (7th)
  • Power play: ND 14.1 (t-41st); Miami 22.1 (14th)
  • Penalty kill: ND 89.0 (7th); Miami 89.2 (6th)
  • Top scorer: ND, T.J. Tynan (8-10–18); Miami, Carter Camper (12-20–32)
  • Top goal scorer: ND, Anders Lee (9): Miami, Camper (12)
  • Top ‘tender: ND, Mike Johnson (2.56 GAA, .911 SV%); Miami, Connor Knapp (1.79, .915) and Cody Reichard (2.31, .901)

“It’s going to be a fun weekend,” Blasi said. “Notre Dame is playing a very tight style of hockey. Their freshman class is very good, not your typical freshmen.”

So much of that is true. Both T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee, ND’s top scorer and top goal scorer, are freshmen. Twenty-six of Notre Dame’s 54 total goals have been scored by seven of the Irish freshmen.

This is one series that makes me just a little nostalgic for Columbus, Ohio. It’s much closer to Oxford than is Flint, Mich.

Players of the month

Tynan has been named the rookie of the month for November. So far the Irish have a lock on this position, as Anders Lee was the October winner.

Tynan had six goals and six assists in November, leading the Irish in scoring. Two of his goals were on the power play, two were short-handers, one was a game-winner. That’s diversity.

Northern Michigan goaltender Reid Ellingson has been named the RBC Financial Group CCHA player of the month for November. In seven games last month, Ellingson went 4-2-1, leading the CCHA in goals-against average for November (1.14) and save percentage (.966). He had one shutout and allowed just eight goals in those seven contests.

Is Miller even known for his kick saves?

I want a box of Ryan Miller’s cereal, Kick-Save Crunch. I have a box of Flutie Flakes from when Doug Flutie played for the Buffalo Bills, and of course I treasure that. This is different. It’s Ryan Miller. It’s Kick-Save Crunch. It’s a honey nut, toasted oats, low-fat food. Says so on the box.

It’s also for a good cause. A portion of the proceeds will go to Miller’s Steadfast Foundation, which is described on his website as “dedicated to serving children and families touched by cancer.”

If you don’t live close enough to a Buffalo-area Wegman’s, Tops or Wilson Farms, you can purchase a box of this limited edition cereal here.