OXFORD, Ohio — One of these teams had to win, right?
The Miami Redhawks and the No. 15 Western Michigan Broncos each entered Friday night in a bit of a funk, as the two squads boasted a combined three wins in the new year. Following 60 minutes at the Goggin Ice Center Friday, it was the home team that shook the proverbial monkey from its back with a 4-2 victory, leaving the Broncos searching for their first entry into the win column in weeks.
“We’ve got to be better, bottom line,” Western Michigan alternate captain Neal Goff explained. “It’s everything. Going hard in the corners, winning those one-on-one battles. There are some games where you play well and get the loss, but I didn’t think tonight was one of those. We’ve got to come out tomorrow, play a full 60 minutes and compete.”
For most of the opening frame, though, it seemed as if Goff’s Broncos would take a lead into the first intermission. Both teams traded high-percentage looks in front of each other’s cages but goaltenders Ryan Larkin and Austin Cain stood tall and kept things scoreless. Larkin, in particular, turned aside a number of notable attempts, including a pad save off of a redirection with mere moments remaining on the clock.
“He’s one of our best players, night in and night out,” Kiefer Sherwood said of his classmate between the pipes. “We didn’t have a great start and he came up with a big game.”
Though the first period belonged to the goaltenders, the second was all about the offense. Not but a minute passed from puck drop when Ben Lown supplied the home squad with its first goal of the evening following a Sherwood shot that whistled wide. The freshman read the play, crashed the net, corralled the rebound on the far post and stuffed it into the goalmouth to extend the lead. Gordie Green joined in on the action a few minutes later on the power play, finishing a Karch Bachman shot that had bounced out in front of the crease 4:47 into frame
Both teams had a number of chances on the man advantage throughout the contest, including a number of five-on-three opportunities. It was during one such situation that Corey Schueneman took advantage of the mismatch and wired the puck past a sprawling Larkin to cut the lead in half.
Grant Hutton contributed to the power play goal trend with a tally of his own in the waning moments of the middle frame. The marker was his tenth of the season, making Hutton the first Redhawk defenseman with 10 goals on the year since Dan Boyle registered 14 in the 1997-98 season.
“Our power play has been huge for our team,” Hutton said of the man-advantage, which at a 27.8% conversion rate heading into the weekend commands top billing among all NCAA squads. “We did [feel good]. That’s our focus, and our power play has been strong lately.”
Western made the game interesting in the third period, responding to Miami’s six shots with nine of its own. A garbage time tally was all the Broncos could muster, though, and the Redhawks soared to the 4-2 final on the stick of Louie Belpedio, who buried his ninth goal on the season to put the game out of reach. Belpedio, Sherwood and Josh Melnick finished with two points apiece, while Larkin backstopped his team with a 20-save effort en route to his tenth win of the year.
Faced with a weekly drop in the polls and the prospect of losing one of the final spots in the PairWise rankings, the Broncos know just how important their last five regular season matchups are. So, too, do the Redhawks who, at the conclusion of Friday’s contest, are in the PairWise hunt at spot number 21. It stands to reason that the conclusion to this weekend series should be decidedly high-energy and up tempo, and Broncos head coach Andy Murray knows exactly what it will take to salvage a series split.
“It’s simple: we have to execute.” the Bronco bench boss said. “We’ve got to coach better, and our players have to be better than their players. That didn’t happen tonight.”