It’s December already, which means that (generally speaking) all league teams have lighter game schedules this month around the holidays and exams — an opportunity to continue to evolve before the grueling stretch run begins in earnest in January. All league teams play just four games each in December, except for St. Cloud State (just two games) and Nebraska-Omaha (with a busy eight game schedule). The Mavericks, winners of just one of their last four games, have a challenging stretch coming up, starting with a trip to Oxford to play a hot Miami team, before hosting St. Cloud next weekend. UNO stays at home during the holidays, with non-conference series against Alabama-Huntsville and New Hampshire before 2014 ends. We’ll preview UNO’s trip to Miami here on Friday. In the meantime:
That Broncos Offense
Well, no, not that Broncos offense… Western Michigan entered last weekend’s Shillelagh Tournament in South Bend, Indiana, after scoring just six goals in a four-game stretch (three losses and a tie). Still, the Broncos had shown signs of their offensive ability earlier in the season — for example, with a 10-goal road weekend at Denver. It all came together, though, for Andy Murray’s team last weekend in South Bend, when WMU won the tournament by outscoring its opponents (Ohio State and defending national champion Union) by a combined 14-4 score. The Broncos stuck with Lukas Hafner in net, as the junior earned a fifth straight start in net over senior Frank Slubowski, but more notably, the offense came alive behind senior forward Justin Kovacs, who was named Offensive Player of the Week in the NCHC after compiling seven assists in the weekend’s two games.
Kovacs was second on the team in goals last year, but 13 of his 14 points this year have been helpers — no doubt reflecting a focus for the senior to jump-start his teammates, especially on the power play (9 of Kovacs’ 14 points have come in man-advantage situations, including four of his five assists on Saturday). Perhaps more importantly, all four lines got involved in the scoring for Western Michigan this weekend, reflecting a dynamic revival of a talented team that has underperformed for most of the season thus far. It’s also a reflection of impressive resiliency for a team that lost three one-goal games in November. The Broncos have an opportunity to keep their momentum rolling next weekend (Dec. 12-13) with a pair of home games against Colorado College.
Miami’s second period
Miami, after going 5-2-0 in November and having now won seven of its last nine games overall, is certainly in a much better position following Thanksgiving this year than the RedHawks were last year. At this time a year ago, Miami had just suffered through a 1-3-1 stretch that snowballed into a winter to forget, winning just three of its next 17 games. This year, as we’ve said repeatedly, Miami is more composed, poised,and resilient at both ends of the ice. The RedHawks have also had an offense that hasn’t relied on its big-name stars (amazingly, senior Austin Czarnik, a double-digit goal scorer each of his first three seasons, is still looking for his first goal of 2014-15).
Miami has been particularly strong this season in making adjustments heading into the second period. Able to rely on strong goaltending again from Jay Williams, the RedHawks have tended to play a strong physical game early and then start putting their opponents away in the second. In fact, Miami has has outshot its opponents 213-92 in the second period, and that shot ratio has (not surprisingly) been reflected into a roughly 2:1 goal ratio in that period as well (21-12). To put the Miami second period dominance into better perspective, consider that the +121 shot differential is by far the best for any NCHC team in any period (next best is Minnesota-Duluth’s +78 shot differential for the first period, then Denver’s +46 for the second period).
Three NCHC players were invited yesterday to attend the U.S. National Junior Team training camp, two weeks from now in Boston, where a group of 30 players will be trimmed to 23 on Christmas Eve. Those 23 will take part at the World Junior Championship tournament in Canada in January. The three NCHC players looking to make the cut are North Dakota rookie forward Nick Schmaltz, Miami sophomore forward Anthony Louis, and Denver sophomore defenseman Will Butcher.
Schmaltz will almost certainly make the team provided he remains injury-free and plays at the camp as he has all season. Last week, teammate and UND leading scorer Drake Caggiula said of the Blackhawks first-rounder, “He’s got the best vision and the best hands I’ve ever played with.”
Despite a strong group of left defensemen invited to Boston, I would expect Butcher, a Colorado Avalanche draft pick, to make the team — not only for his sound defense (in Denver, as we know, he’s helped shut down opposing top lines in front of goaltender Evan Cowley) but also for his ability to score and for his experience. Butcher is looking to return to the team after he was part of Team USA’s defensive corps last year, when he averaged a point per game. Meanwhile, Louis has been a key player for Miami lately, with points in four of the RedHawks’ last five, and more importantly, he showed up in big games last year — with six points in Miami’s final four games of the season (culminating in the NCHC title game). Louis is a small, skilled forward, and it’ll be interesting to see whether he can make the team amidst a very talented group of left wingers invited to the camp.
Coming soon: Six NCHC teams will be in action this weekend, highlighted by a pair of big road trips for UNO (at Miami) and Colorado College (at Minnesota-Duluth), with each visiting team facing a tough task. Meanwhile, Denver heads to Ithaca, N.Y., to take on Cornell, and Lake Superior visits North Dakota. We’ll preview all the series here on Friday.
Comment on this Post ...