The most feared man in the CCHA stood under the banners at Yost Ice Arena on Thursday. He wore a gray No. 18 sweater and swatted pucks into the net with all the effort of a man swatting at flies.
Slapshot … corner of the net. Slapshot … corner of the net. One after another.
He hit just one crossbar before moving onto penalty shots. Again, he skated down the ice almost lethargically, and again, the pucks went in at will.
One-for-2, 2-for-4 … 3-for-5 in all.
In Miami (Ohio) forward Reilly Smith, the No. 7 Michigan hockey team will run into the conference’s most prolific goal-scorer in the middle of his tear through the conference schedule. The two teams will square off at Yost this weekend.
“You just have to be aware of a player like that,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “You know he’s a little extra gifted and a little extra skilled. … You’ve got to respect what he can do on the ice.”
Smith represents the piece missing from the Michigan hockey team this year.
The Wolverines are a more complete team than the 18th-ranked RedHawks. They have better goaltending, more depth and a better all-around offense.
So why does Miami keep beating Michigan?
This year, the RedHawks’ only advantage is Smith. Unlike Michigan, Miami knows it has a go-to scorer.
Whether Michigan will snap its recent five-game winless streak against Miami will hinge on its ability to shut down the nation’s third leading goal-scorer. The first time the two teams met this season, Smith scored twice in the finale to help the RedHawks come back from a two-goal deficit and win in a shootout.
Just don’t mention to Berenson that Michigan’s last win over Miami came two years ago, or that the Wolverines have taken just one out of the past eight matchups.
“Do you know what their record is in Yost since (Miami coach Enrico Blasi has) been there?” Berenson asked. “3-and-13. So wait until the weekend’s over, and then we’ll talk about who played well and who didn’t.”
No, there’s no love lost between the two CCHA rivals. Berenson doesn’t relish answering questions about Miami, and at the end of his interview on Thursday, he reiterated that the series isn’t about Miami, it’s about whether Michigan can play its game.
Smith and Blasi spoke highly of Michigan, but that didn’t stop Smith from slipping in a little dig.
“You really just have to stifle their offense,” Smith said. “They’re definitely a run-and-gun team, so the more you slow them down, the more they’ll get frustrated and get down on their teammates.”
In the first game in Oxford, Smith didn’t need to contribute anything. The Redhawks battered Michigan in the game’s opening minutes, and before the shell-shocked Wolverines could react, Miami already held a 2-0 lead.
“It almost seemed like we were afraid to play them,” said sophomore defenseman Mac Bennett. “They came out, and they played physical.”
Berenson said this series’ opening minutes will be just as critical, but playing at home should give Michigan an advantage. Dictating the tone and pace of the game early on, according to Berenson, has more to do with Michigan playing its own game than anything Miami does.
It’s a lot like playing against Smith.
“You can respect players, but you can’t respect them too much,” Bennett said, holding his hands inches apart to demonstrate.
Much like Michigan, Miami struggled earlier in the season, losing five games in a row at one point before rebounding during CCHA play. The RedHawks have won six of their past eight and sit in second place in the conference, four points ahead of the seventh-place Wolverines.
Miami’s biggest surprise of the season has been the play of freshman forward Austin Czarnik, who has anchored Smith’s line at the center position, replacing last year’s Hobey Baker Award-winner, Andy Miele.
With Miele gone, Smith has handled the puck more often, and Czarnik has become an effective distributor.
“His speed really gravitates the defense toward him,” Smith said. “Czarnik has actually stepped into (Miele’s) role really well, and it’s amazing how well he’s actually filled in Andy’s spot.”
Though Miami overwhelmed Michigan early in the first matchup this season, Smith said the Redhawks will try to slow the game down, especially at a place like Yost, where Blasi said the game can get away from you, and quickly.
For many in the crowd and on the Michigan bench, this series will be about revenge. The Wolverines’ underclassmen — over half of the roster — have never beaten Miami.
“I think we’re taking this weekend the same as the weekend we took Ohio State the second time around,” Bennett said. “They swept us the first time, and they gotta pay for that.”