Miami University program rises to forefront

By David A. Rainer

When one contemplates some of the best teams in college hockey, many names come to mind. Back to back national championships from Denver. The long and illustrious histories of North Dakota and Boston College. The prospect-laden programs of Michigan and Minnesota. And… Miami University?

One of college hockey’s biggest surprises in the early season has been the Miami RedHawks. Miami, located in Oxford, Ohio, had always been a program just on the outside of the traditional powerhouses of the NCAA, a team that occasionally will pull together a quality season and end up crossing their fingers on tournament selection day. And while all the traditional powerhouses get the notoriety, it has been Miami that is quietly stealing this year’s show and proving why they are one of the best up and coming programs in college hockey.

With only three tournament berths to speak of in their team history, Miami is far from being a big name amongst NCAA hockey pundits. And rightly so. But even programs like Minnesota and Boston College started somewhere. On some breezy autumn afternoon long ago, the puck was dropped in the first game to a season that would prove to be the foundation of numerous championships for North Dakota down the road. At some point prior to the that prophetic face-off, using the term “power” in the same breath as “North Dakota” would have been met with jocularity, or at least a “not until they prove it”.

That might just be what Miami is doing right now – proving it. They continued an 11-2-1 start with a weekend series sweep of third-ranked Michigan, a Michigan team that showcases nine drafted players, including two in the first round of the 2005 Entry Draft. Never before had the RedHawk name been uttered when contemplating the possible champions of college hockey, at least not without severe reservation and an abundance of conditionals. By roaring to the top of the CCHA Conference standings, a conference that has recently been dominated by the likes of Michigan, Ohio St., and Michigan St., Miami is making their statement be heard.

The 2003-04 season resulted in only the third NCAA Championship tournament appearance for Miami. But after losing in the first round to the eventual champions Denver Pioneers, and graduating their top three scorers of Mike Kompon, Greg Hogeboom (LA) and Derek Edwardson, and nearly all of their team leadership, Miami struggled to find consistency in 2004-05. However, the disappointments of that season would breed a new set of leaders and usher in a crop of freshmen that are fueling Miami’s engine as sophomores.

The most impressive aspect of their 2005-06 season is that there is not a single skater that is averaging more than a point per game, yet they are the leaders in scoring in conference play. What that translates into is balanced scoring. With seven players having scored in double figures and five having scored five or more goals, Miami can hurt the opposition from any angle. One or two players can be shut down, or experience an off night, but with seven or more players capable of leading the team in scoring, it becomes difficult to stop them all.

Senior defensemen Andy Greene and Matt Davis provide stability and leadership from the blue line. Junior Matt Christie (ANA) and sophomores Nathan Davis (CHI) and Ryan Jones (MIN) contribute scoring from the forward position. Marty Guerin (LA) provides gritty scoring up front and invaluable persistence in the defensive zone. The new crop of young freshmen headlined by Justin Mercier (COL), Raymond Eichenlaub and Kevin Roeder are also experiencing solid first seasons, making this team as deep as any in all of hockey.

Just as impressive as their balanced scoring is the defensive play of the team. Only Wisconsin has surrendered fewer goals than Miami and it begins from the net out. The tandem of sophomore Charlie Effinger and freshman Jeff Zatkoff (2006 draft eligible) have combined for a 1.64 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. Both Effinger and Zatkoff are in the top three in the league for GAA and save percentage and have made big save after big save for the RedHawks.

Lending support to those between the pipes is the team defense. Each player on the ice cooperates perfectly with his teammates to move as a uniform group. While the 26 shots against per game that they concede is amongst the most in the league, they do an excellent job of controlling the opposition and clearing the rebounds. The team is committed to defense and encourage two-way forwards like Guerin to stay deep in the zone to support the defensemen.

What this all means is that Miami University is knocking off top hockey programs and growing into one themselves. They are doing it not with star players and elite NHL prospects but with solid recruiting classes, modeling refined team play over individual accomplishments. But of course the college hockey season is not even half completed and there are still reservations and conditionals on whether this Red Hawk team can find its way into the Frozen Four. Nevertheless, to this point, one game at a time and one disbeliever at a time, the Miami Red Hawks are beginning to turn heads.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.