Western Michigan and Miami have not faced each other this season, but the long-time rivals will reacquaint themselves quickly, as they play the next four games against each other and match up in six of their final 14 regular season contests.
These will be the first games for both teams outside of the Omaha Pod, as the Broncos enter play winless in the last four contests and Miami tries to rebound from a 6-2 loss to North Dakota to end hub play.
WHO: Miami RedHawks (2-7-1) at Western Michigan Broncos (2-6-2).
WHERE: Lawson Arena (0), Kalamazoo, Mich.
WHEN: Saturday – 7 p.m.; Sunday – 5 p.m.
STREAMING: NCHC.tv ($).
NOTES: Earlier this week, Western Michigan added three players to its roster to help in its second-half run – goalie Ross Hawryluk and forwards Matteo Pecchia and Tim Washe.
Hawryluk was very good in the Saskatchewan junior system and provides WMU much-needed depth at that position.
Pecchia surged in the OJHL last season, and Washe – brother of teammate Paul Washe – had been thriving in the BCHL.
After starting netminder Brandon Bussi went down in the Broncos’ first game, things got ugly, but Western Michigan has recovered and senior Austin Cain has seen his save percentage rise to .872.
Offensively, WMU is scoring three goals a game.
Drew Worrad leads the team with 10 points, eight coming on assists, and Washe and Josh Passolt have nine apiece.
Ethen Frank is tops among all Broncos with six goals.
On defense, Philadelphia draftee Ronnie Attard leads all blueliners with six points (1-5-6), and the rest of the defense corps has combined for 13 points.
Mike Joyaux, younger brother of former RedHawks Chris and Matt Joyaux, has also been excellent on the WMU blue line.
Cain his been thrust into the starting role in net after starter Brandon Bussi suffered a long-term injury the first game of the season. Cain has an .872 save percentage and a 4.23 goals-against average.
It’s unclear when Bussi will return.
The RedHawks have lost their last five games in Lawson Arena, as their last win in Kalamazoo came on Dec. 8, 2017.
Throughout the Omaha Pod, Miami’s M.O. was to play competitive hockey in the first period. The final 40 minutes, not so much.
But the RedHawks flipped that script in their first non-hub game of the season, beating Western Michigan, 3-1 at Lawson Arena on Friday night.
It was MU’s first win in Kalamazoo since Dec. 8, 2017, snapping a five-game skid there and a string of seven straight road losses.
RECAP: Western Michigan took the lead with 8:37 left in the first period, as Drew Worrad won an offensive-zone boards battle on the power play and slipped a pass to Cole Gallant for a 2-on-1 down low, and Gallant fed a one-timer to Ethen Frank, who buried it from the faceoff dot.
Miami answered with a goal on the man advantage as Matt Barry teed up a one-timer for Derek Daschke at the point, and Daschke buried the slap slot inside the near post 3:11 into the middle frame.
The RedHawks took the lead less than eight minutes later when Ben Lown and Monte Graham played give-and-go to enter the offensive zone, and Lown slid a pass to a streaking Phil Knies, who took one stride and whipped a wrister past goalie Austin Cain on his stick side from the slot.
The Broncos nearly tied it with an extra attacker in the closing moments as a rebound found a wide-open Josh Passolt at the side of the MU net, but RedHawks goalie Ludvig Persson pushed across the crease to made a pad save on point-blank shot.
Miami sealed it with 35 seconds to play when Hampus Rydqvist fired the puck from behind his own net along the boards, and it rolled onto its edge, took a left turn and hit the back of the empty net.
STATS: Persson went binary for the fourth straight start, as he has allowed 0-0-1-1 goals in those contests. He lowered his goals-against average to 1.16, second among NCAA qualifiers only to Minnesota’s Jack LaFontaine.
His save percentage rose slightly from .9620 to .9624, also second in Division I to LaFontaine.
During his torrid four-game stretch, he is at .984 and 0.50, stopping 121 of 123 shots while going 3-0-1.
Daschke’s team-leading third goal of the season was also the 19th of his career, moving him past Rhys Hollman into eighth on Miami’s all-time defenseman leaderboard. His next target is Alec Martinez, who is seventh with 21.
Knies’ marker was his second in four games, and he is 2-2-4 in that span.
Rydqvist, who missed the final Pod game due to injury, netted his second career goal, with both coming in his last five games. The freshman defenseman is still looking for his first assist.
Lown, Barry, Casey Gilling and Graham all earned assists.
Lown and Barry both picked up their third point in four games, and Gilling has a pair of assists in his last three outings.
Barry is now tied with Matthew Barbolini for the team lead in points with six.
Miami finished 1-for-3 on the power play, giving the team two PPGs in its last three games (2-for-8). The RedHawks were a woeful 1 of 27 (3.7 percent) their first eight contests. They were pretty good on their first chance, scored on their second opportunity and were in clock-kill mode for the third, which occurred late in the third period.
MU allowed a goal on the man advantage for the second straight game, dropping its PK percentage to 84.9 percent, tied for 13th in the NCAA.
THOUGHTS: It seems like we’ve been writing about nothing but Persson, but it would be both unfair and inaccurate if we didn’t say that he was the story again in this game.
He made an absolutely stupid save on a wide-open Passolt just several feet from the net with time winding down, and he made two more great saves in the second period.
To say Persson is on fire is both a cliché and an understatement. He’s putting together one of the best goalie campaigns in team history.
He actually gave up a couple more juicy rebounds than he normally does in this game, but he made every key save down the stretch, stopping all 16 shots he faced in the final 40 minutes.
Persson had no chance on the one goal against, as Frank is one of the best snipers in the NCHC and was left wide open for a one-timer, which he rifled into the back of the net.
Miami coach Chris Bergeron talks a lot about this team needing to gain confidence if it wants to dig itself out of this years-long losing funk.
Having a goalie that not only keeps you in the game every night but can steal wins for you, and also bails out most defensive mistakes is one of the best remedies for a team on the mend.
Miami had outscored opponents, 5-4 in the first period through 10 games but trailed, 25-10 in the final two frames and overtime. The RedHawks fell behind in this one but ran off the final three markers, flipping the script on that early trend.
Joey Cassetti made his MU debut and was very impressive, especially in the faceoff circle, where he won 9 of 14 draws.
Bergeron put him on the first power play unit, and his offensive zone draw win ultimately led to Daschke’s goal.
Miami has struggled in this category for years, and it’s not a coincidence that the 2020-21 power play has suffered considering the RedHawks’ rarely seem to wins draws on the man advantage and are also thin up front.
Speaking of player movement, Bergeron changed some things up in game, and his decision to place Cassetti on the top power unit should tell you how much confidence we has in him.
Which means we should as well.
He played a lot of minutes and seemed to adapt well. The Merrimack transfer is 6-feet-3 and gives the another big body up front to the RedHawks, who have lacked size and physicality up front for several seasons.
Bergeron originally had Barry on the second line with Knies and Lown but he shifted him around during the game, and also moved Jack Olmstead to the top line for a while to help it get going, but it never did and he moved Olmstead out of that spot later in the game.
Up front, Knies and Lown almost converted on the penalty kill after stealing the puck and combined for the go-ahead goal. Those two and Barry stood out the most, although Scott Corbett dished out a few hits and was outstanding defensively.
On defense, this was one of Daschke’s best all-around games, as he was stellar defensively, breaking up a 2-on-1 by sprawling through the slot to bat a pass away with his stick.
Rydqvist was also excellent, especially in the first period when he laid out a couple of Western Michigan forwards. For that reason, his empty-net goal – one of the luckiest in Miami recent history – was well deserved.
So the cleared puck that ended up in the WMU net caromed along the boards until reaching center ice, where it sat up on its edge and arced toward the net.
Sweden’s curling team might start scouting Rydqvist at some point.
One gripe: There’s zero excuse for allowing a guy in Frank with six goals in 10 games to stand wide open on a faceoff dot for a one-time rip. It looked like Miami over-committed defensively to the opposite side and lost track of him.
LINEUP CHANGES: It’s always interesting to see what changes after breaking for the holidays.
Cassetti certainly appears like a steady top-12 forward, which will bump someone down the depth chart each night.
Brian Silver also rejoined the lineup as Bergeron again opted for seven defensemen.
Chase Pletzke was not in the lineup for the first time this season, and Caleb Rule – who played six games in the pod – also sat.
With Rydqvist back from injury, fellow blueliner Alec Capstick did not dress.
Bray Crowder missed his fourth straight game with an undisclosed injury, and Rourke Russell sat for the second consecutive contest.
Persson was between the pipes for the third time in four games, and with games more spread out and Persson obviously dominating, he should log a substantially higher percentage of the minutes the final two months of the regular season unless he starts to struggle.
STANDINGS: Miami and Western Michigan were tied for last in the NCHC, and with the win, the RedHawks jump to 11 points, three ahead of the Broncos and three behind sixth-place Colorado College, which has a game in hand over MU.
FINAL THOUGHTS: If you’re a Miami hockey fan, thank your deity of choice for the defense corps and goaltenders, because the forwards have combined for 10 goals in 11 games – that’s an average of 0.91 – including just one (Knies) in this one.
The blueliners have netted eight as Miami is averaging 1.64 goals per game, and this three-goal output – which included an empty netter – equals its season high.
Your forwards can’t score and your netminder(s) are stopping everything in sight. So do you play a more defensive game and try to win 2-1, which is essentially what happened in this game, or are you more aggressive with your D, knowing your goalie(s) are likely to bail you out if you get caught?
With this roster, it seems like trying to eke out low-scoring games might be the wiser strategy. Miami did it in this game.
Closing out games hasn’t been the RedHawks’ forte during their current drought, but they passed that test on Saturday and may get a lot more practice the balance of this season.