The evidence of Miami’s progress is in the win column.
In 2021-22, the RedHawks won just seven games. This season, MU reached that victory total by the end of the calendar year.
And that’s largely against a much-tougher non-conference slate consisting of UMass Lowell, significantly-improved Michigan State and Ferris State teams, plus Canisius. Miami played Mercyhurst and second-year program Long Island last season and disappointed by splitting both series.
The RedHawks’ record entering its first series of 2023 sits at 7-11-2. Ninth months ago they wrapped up a 7-25-2 campaign, having been ousted from the first round of the NCHC Tournament for the sixth straight season.
While Miami Version 2022-23 is still nowhere near the caliber of the Frozen Four-era or even the dominant 2014-15 team (and it should be noted that we’re comparing this team to the one last season that was the program’s second-worst in its five-decade history), the current freshmen have been arguably the biggest key to the RedHawks’ winning percentage surging to .400 after slipping to .222 last season.
Eight of the nine freshmen dressed this past weekend, and the Class of 2026 has accounted for 18 goals and 23 assists for 41 points — 33 percent of the team’s total.
“Extremely proud of the whole class,” Miami coach Chris Bergeron said. “I believe that our future is bright with those nine guys, I believe they all bring a good, positive vibe on a daily basis regardless of the previous result. They’re a breath of fresh air for sure — and that’s not taking anything away from the older guys. We believe that their attitude and their belief in not only themselves but the group is going to be great for us as we move forward.”
Some other positive takeaways from the 2022 half of the 2022-23 slate:
TALENT: Well, obviously. This sort of overlaps with the above freshmen butt-kissery, as several members of that class have moved into prestigious lineup spots while replacing skaters that were less effective the previous season.
Which also kind of segues into the next couple of areas, the first of which is…
FORWARD DEPTH: Looking at the bottom six on Saturday, Jack Olmstead, Ryan Savage, Thomas Daskas and Brian Silver have all shown marked improvement over 2021-22, and freshman Frankie Carogioiello seems to get better every night.
The fourth line of Carogioiello, Daskas and Silver generated five points in MU’s win over Niagara on Dec. 30.
Another freshman — Blake Mesenburg — wasn’t in the lineup but is expected back soon. He has worked his way from a borderline starter to a steady third-line center in three months.
Those skaters complement a top six that consisted of four more freshmen in Miami’s last series, with William Hallen and John Waldron on the top line and Artur Turansky and Max Dukovac on the second.
Waldron may challenge for the NCHC’s top rookie award, as he has scored seven goals in seven games and is still responsible defensively.
Hallen is raw but is adjusting well to the college game, and he is starting to find his scoring touch, netting a pair of markers in three contests. Same with Turansky.
Dukovac has eight points in 18 games after an explosive October.
“I’m happy with our depth,” Bergeron said. “You look at our top six, there’s some young people there, you look at our so-called bottom six, there’s guys that have contributed, there’s some experience there.”
BETTER DEFENDING: Admittedly, this team isn’t the Martin Brodeur-led New Jersey Devils of the turn of the millennium, but the past few seasons it looked like there were runway lights in Miami’s slot.
In 2021-22 no Division I team allowed more shots per game than Miami (37.6), which cleared the field by half a SOG. This season the RedHawks are 13th-worst in the NCAA at 32.3. Five-plus shots fewer allowed is a lot.
And throwing out the Niagara series, Miami has forced more shots from the perimeter and allowed very few odd-man rushes.
Goaltending is of course an integral component of defending, and Ludvig Persson has a .901 save percentage this season vs. .894 in 2021-22.
Again, freshmen have made a huge difference. Zane Demsey was on the top pairing vs. Niagara and Axel Kumlin and Michael Feenstra both skated on the second pairing that weekend.
“The defending to me is something that, I wanted it to be a staple, I wanted it to be something that we could change quicker than we have to this point,” Bergeron said. “Defending to me is a willingness. Yes it’s a skill — I do not want to downplay the skills of defending, and this isn’t just on defensemen. I think generally speaking pucks ended up in our net over the course of the first three years and we wanted to keep pucks out, and the way you do that is defend better. Are we learning how we want to defend and what that looks like? Yes. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely, always.”
CLOSING OUT GAMES: Yeah, the bar was set ridiculously low last season, when Miami may have set the planet’s all-time futility record for third-period and overtime performance.
The RedHawks did lose in the final half-minute last Saturday but are still 6-1-1 when leading after two periods and 7-2-2 when tied or ahead after 40 minutes, including a win at North Dakota in the final minutes when Jack Clement stripped a puck and fired it in from the side of the net.
Dare we remind you Miami somehow finished 2021-22 with a 3-5-1 (.378) record when AHEAD with 20 minutes remaining and managed to finish 6-13-1 (.350!!!!) when LEADING OR TIED heading into the third period, possibly the worst such clip in the history of organized hockey.
“That’s one that’s a work in progress for me,” Bergeron said. “We have to win games to learn how to win games, and — this is going to sound ridiculous — but not lose games to find a way to lose games, and I think that’s what we struggled with last year. Not only were we not finding ways to win, but we actually were finding ways to lose…that play, that penalty…whatever it is. I do think we’ve done a better job, but you want more. You want more to where it becomes expected to win, expected to close out games.”
This freshman-laden group now faces the second-half gauntlet that is 14 games exclusively against NCHC opponents followed by an equally ruthless conference tournament.
The team endured a 1-9-1 stretch earlier this season and wasn’t crushed by it. Quite the opposite: The RedHawks seem to have come away from that brutal drought better.
Miami has been very frustrating to watch at times this season and for brief moments has shown flashes of a team ready to challenge for an NCAA Tournament berth.
But despite the sometimes-maddening inconsistency, after matching their win total from a disappointing 2021-22 in less than three months, every RedHawks victory down the stretch will be a step away from their miserable seasons-long slump.
And having nine contributing freshmen on a deeper and hungrier team who are all improving is extremely encouraging, as this class will hopefully help return this program to NCHC relevance through 2026.
“In my experience, whether it’s here of somewhere else, internal competition brings out the best in everybody, especially if the kids are wired right, which, I believe we have a bunch of kids that are wired right, trying really hard and they all want to play, and they all realize it’s all on them,” Bergeron said.