Showdown time has arrived in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
Miami University will invade Western Michigan’s Lawson Ice Arena for a weekend series that starts Friday, with the RedHawks one point ahead of the second-place Broncos in the standings.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good position, and we’re going to probably play the best team that we’ve seen to this point,” MU coach Enrico Blasi said. “They’re defending CCHA champions, they’ve got a lot of those pieces back, and we’re going into their building. I think they’re as well-balanced a team as you’re going to find.
“The nice thing is, everybody right now has to play somebody, and everybody is desperate for points. You’ve just got to focus on trying to get some points on the weekend. If you can do that, you’re going to continue to move forward and hopefully things start to line up right.”
Miami is 17-6-5 overall and 12-4-4 in the CCHA. WMU is 17-6-5, 13-4-3. The difference is this: The RedHawks have four shootout wins, the Broncos just one.
MU’s players are eager to be involved in games with championship implications.
“It’s a position we’re happy to be in,” senior forward Marc Hagel said. “We’re going to show up and play our hardest.”
“You want the big-time games,” freshman defenseman Matthew Caito said. “That’s what everyone dreams about and it’s here for us, so we’ve got to go get it.”
Western loves to play in front of its raucous fans. The Broncos are 12-1-1 at Lawson this year.
WMU won’t be at full strength Friday, however, after a chippy Saturday game at Ferris State last weekend. Junior defenseman Dennis Brown was ejected and must sit out Game 1 of this series. Sophomore forward Justin Kovacs will also be idle after drawing a one-game suspension from the CCHA.
“We had two very tough games at Ferris,” Western coach Andy Murray said. “We did a great job on Friday night, probably played one of our better games of the year. On Saturday night, we were disappointed with the way we finished the game off and certainly some of the things we did during the course of the game as well, but we found a way to get a win and a tie in a very tough environment.”
Murray, a veteran National Hockey League coach in his second season at WMU, has a standout goaltender in sophomore Frank Slubowski (.923 save percentage, 1.75 goals-allowed average). His top scorers are senior wing Dane Walters (12 goals, nine assists) and junior forward Chase Balisy (eight goals, 11 assists).
Miami is ranked first nationally in defense, giving up 1.54 goals per game. Western is third (1.82).
Murray believes his crew can adapt to any style of play.
“When a team tries to so-called run us out of the building, we can deal with that,” he said. “We’re a physical team in our own sense. We don’t necessarily run all over the place because we’ve got the puck most of the time, but we can play in a real physical environment. We can play in an up-tempo environment, which we’re going to need against Miami this weekend.
“(The RedHawks have) got a lot of speed, a lot of energy. They possess the puck very well. I think it’ll be a battle of wills as to who dictates puck possession.”
MU is ranked third in both national polls — Western is sixth. Miami is ranked seventh in the country in penalty killing — the Broncos are 12th.
The leading scorers for the Redhawks, riding a five-game winning streak, are sophomore Austin Czarnik (11 goals, 19 assists) and freshman Riley Barber (11 goals, 17 assists). Blasi has consistently gone with freshmen Jay Williams (.930, 1.76) and Ryan McKay (.960, 1.08) on a Friday-Saturday rotation in the MU goal.
Miami at Western Michigan, 7:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1490 (both days), 1450 (Saturday)