A month ago, the Miami (Ohio) hockey team looked like it was running on all cylinders.
The RedHawks had won the CCHA Tournament last season and was fresh off an NCAA Tournament berth. Though they lost Hobey Baker award winner Andy Miele, they filled the void with prized freshman forward Tyler Biggs.
But things have changed since spring, and now Miami (2-4-0 CCHA, 4-6-0 overall) is slugging through a mediocre season. Its forward corps is having trouble converting its shots into goals, and even though it has two senior goalkeepers, its save percentage has declined.
No. 4 Michigan (3-2-1, 7-2-1) has dropped seven of its last 10 games against the RedHawks, and though the Miami team it will face this weekend is not playing at the expected level, Michigan coach Red Berenson does not anticipate walking away with two easy wins.
“I don’t think (the matchup) has lost any luster for us,” Berenson said. “They’ve got a good team, I know they’re better than their record.”
But even with a less-than-stellar start to their season, the RedHawks are leading Michigan in one category: time spent in the penalty box.
If Berenson has been unimpressed with the amount of penalties the Wolverines have been taking, it’s nothing compared to Miami. The RedHawks have spent a third of their season playing a man down, and almost half of their opponent’s goals have come from power plays.
As a result, the Wolverines know how critical their special teams will be during this series.
Michigan’s power play unit made an appearance last weekend after staying relatively quiet for most of the season. Last week proved the unit can score — it did twice. Now Berenson wants it to convert more frequently.
“(The power play) has to (play well),” Berenson said. “We’re not going down there to play in a penalty-filled game, but I know how they play. If they’re playing on the edge, you’ve got to be ready to win with a special teams game if it comes down to that.”
Playing a man up will provide Michigan with much needed opportunities to get ahead, but how it plays shorthanded will be just as important.
According to Berenson, the power play on last year’s RedHawks squad could “take you out of a game,” and they did — Miami scored three power play goals over the course of two games against Michigan last season. This year, the RedHawk unit hasn’t been as forceful, but Berenson still has important advice for his team: stay out of the box.
Berenson and the players know that’s easier said than done. The immensely physical nature of hockey means that penalties are inevitable. But though Michigan can’t limit its number of penalties, it can control what kind of penalties it takes.
“You don’t go into a game thinking ‘We can only take four penalties,’ ” said junior forward Lindsay Sparks. “We say we don’t want to take any bad penalties, we want to take hard working penalties.
“You don’t want to take penalties in the offensive zone. You’d rather take penalties when you’re back-checking and it saves a goal.”
The RedHawks might be the statistical underdogs in this weekend’s series, but the Wolverines prefer to take that title upon themselves. With a 1-1 record on the road, Michigan hopes to prove that it can win important games without the comforting confines of Yost Ice Arena.
“Our team hasn’t played well enough to be complacent about anything, particularly Miami,” Berenson said. “We have something to prove this weekend. We want to prove that we’re a better team on the road and that we can go down and beat Miami in their environment.”