Well, it might not be the sexiest matchup, but the #1 Miami RedHawks finally return to the ice on Friday night for the first time since finishing off a sweep of Ohio State on December 12 in Oxford. The RedHawks will particpate in the 2010 Pittsburgh College Hockey Showcase facing Robert Morris University of College Hockey America. The day of hockey will feature the RMU women's team against UConn at 2pm followed by RMU club hockey at 5pm against Penn State while the nation's number one ranked team will face the varsity Colonials at 8pm from Mellon Arena in downtown Pittsburgh. The teams will complete the back end of the home-and-home on Sunday at 4pm from Steve Cady Arena in Oxford. Sunday's game will be televised across the great state of Ohio on ONN.
The last time we saw the Miami RedHawks, they were finishing the back end of a home-and-home with Ohio State sweeping the Buckeyes 6-0 and 4-2. Currently, Miami is riding a five-game unbeaten streak that includes CCHA league series sweeps against Ohio State and Notre Dame, and a tie against current #5 North Dakota in Grand Forks, N.D.
The RedHawks enter the weekend perched atop all three major polls (USCHO, USA Today, INCH), are ranked first in the KRACH ratings (a sophisticated computer model) and first in the Pairwise rankings that simulate the NCAA's RPI ratings that largely determine the participants in the NCAA Tournament. To suggest the first half of the season was successful would be an understatement.
But, that brings us to the subject of the second half of the season which has become known by some as the "Rico Swoon" in honor of head coach Enrico Blasi's less than overwhelming second half coaching record. In particular, the first ten games after the winter holiday break have been the most difficult for even the best Miami teams over the years.
Here's a look at Miami's record in the first ten games after the winter break/the start of the second half of each season since 1999-2000*.
03-04: 7-2-1 (NCAA Tournament)
05-06: 6-3-1 (CCHA Regular Season Champions, NCAA Tournament)
06-07: 3-4-3 (NCAA Regional Finalist)
07-08: 7-2-1 (NCAA Regional Finalist)
08-09: 4-5-1 (NCAA Finalist)
* source: http://muredhawkshockey.blogspot.com
So, since 1999-2000, Miami is an average 48-41-11 in the first ten games of the second half of the season. As it is, Miami is currently 13-2-5 and atop the CCHA standings. Last year, Miami started fast at 12-3-3, but underperformed during January and early February effectively eliminating themselves from the CCHA regular season title chase falling well off the pace that was being set by Notre Dame. And, the first two games of last year were in the now defunct Ohio Hockey Classic with Miami losing to Clarkson of the ECAC and Army of Atlantic Hockey. These were games that Miami was heavily favored to win.
This year's opponent to kick off the second half, Robert Morris University, enters Friday's game a dismal 3-12-3 in the final season of College Hockey America (the Colonials will join Atlantic Hockey beginning next season). Amazingly, RMU is in second place in the CHA with a league record of 1-4-2 though they are a distant second as Bemidji State is 8-0 in conference play. Furthermore, the Colonials score just 2.67 goals per game while allowing an average of 4.06 goals per game meaning their defense and goaltending simply aren't getting the job done for them. Conversely, Miami leads the nation in team defense having allowed just 34 goals in 20 games (1.70 goals-against average). But, if you take away two games where they allowed five goals to New Hampshire and North Dakota, Miami has allowed just 24 goals, or an average of 1.33 goals per game in the other 18 contests. That, my friends, is team defense.
Sophomore goaltender Cody Reichard leads the nation in goals-against average at 1.34, he is second in save percentage at 93.8 and is tied for second in shutouts (3) and should get the start for Miami on Friday night. Sophomore Connor Knapp (2.18, .913) is no slouch either and will likely play Sunday in Oxford.
Offensively, the Colonials are led upfront by juniors Nathan Longpre (8-13-21) and Chris Kushneriuk (9-11-20) while junior Denny Urban anchors a porous defense corps posting 5-7-12 in 18 games.
Miami continues to be paced offensively by the stellar junior class led by Andy Miele (7-12-19) and captain Tommy Wingels (10-8-18) while sophomore Cameron Schilling leads the defensemen in scoring with 1-9-10. While no Miami skaters appear in the nation's top 40 scorers, Miami is evenly balanced across four lines with seven players having recorded ten or more points in the season's first twenty games. It will be a challenge for Robert Morris to defend Miami for 60 minutes.
While the stats and records all point to a Miami sweep, the Rico Swoon cannot be overlooked. Will Miami return from a month-long break as focused as the team that ended the decade with three shutouts in their last four games. Or, will they struggle to regain the momentum that's often lost in visits home for Christmas dinner and gifts?
The Colonials are the second team Miami has faced from the CHA this season with the other coming against current #10 Bemidji State in a rematch of last year's national semifinal that was won 4-1 by Miami in Washington. The Beavers handed Miami their only loss in regulation by a 3-2 score and gained a measure of revenge against the RedHawks over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Miami has appeared on a mission from the outset of the season. But, with road trips to #11 Ferris State and Alaska looming over the next two weekends, the RedHawks must take advantage of these two games against a seemingly weaker opponent to get the second half off to a good start. Accordingly, Miami cannot afford to come out flat, and yet, they cannot look ahead to the showdown with Ferris State next weekend.
Enrico Blasi has had his men focused all year and I think that continues against Robert Morris.
Friday (Mellon Arena, Pittsburgh)
Robert Morris 0
Sunday (Steve Cady Arena, Oxford)
Robert Morris 1