College Hockey: Young RedHawks picking up their game at the right time

Miami defenseman Louie Belpedio against Saint Cloud State earlier this season. Photo courtesy of Miami Athletics

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Miami defenseman Louie Belpedio against Saint Cloud State earlier this season. Photo courtesy of Miami Athletics

Even when your class outnumbers the other three combined, there’s little time for growing pains in the Miami hockey program.

The RedHawks opened the 2016-2017 season with 14 freshmen dominating their 26-player roster and, as might be expected, the results have been something of a roller coaster.

A 3-1-2 start was followed by a 10-game winless slump that opened with five consecutive losses. Miami bounced back with a five-game winning streak, including an upset at Ohio State, then ranked ninth nationally, on New Year’s Eve. That was followed by a two-game home sweep of St. Cloud State, ranked 20th in the country at the time, and a win at then-No. 7 North Dakota on Jan. 13.

The RedHawks are 0-2-1 since then, settling for a tie last Friday and a shutout loss last Saturday at Omaha, leaving them 8-10-6 overall and 4-6-4 in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference going into home games Friday and Saturday against 10th-ranked Western Michigan (13-6-3, 7-6-1) at Steve Cady Arena.

Miami coach Rico Blasi has been pleased with how his team has been playing lately. He also wasn’t surprised.

“I said before the season that I thought we’d be better in January and February than we would be early in the season,” the 18th-year Miami coach said. “I guess that’s true of every team. It’s the rate of the growth that’s different from team to team. I’ve been very pleased with our growth and maturation. When you have a young team, the attention to detail on a couple of levels might be different. You have to get them to understand the details and how to handle the grind. What they really have to understand is the standards that we set. That takes time.”

“It’s a learning experience for the coaches, too,” he added. “Sometimes, we’re trying to put the pieces in the wrong places. You have to learn the pieces of the puzzle. I’ve been happy with their growth. They’re not there, but they’re getting close. I think we’ve played good hockey the last four or five weeks.”

One key freshman contributor is goaltender Ryan Larkin, who has started 22 of Miami’s 24 gamed and is ranked fifth in the NCHC with a 2.53 goals against average and fourth with a .913 save percentage.

The offense leans more on veterans. Senior forward Anthony Louis ranks third in the conference with 30 points, including team-highs with 13 goals and 17 assists. Sophomore forward Kiefer Sherwood is fifth in the conference with 26 points, including 10 goals.

Similar contributions will come in handy against the Broncos, who came back from one-goal deficits in both games to sweep Miami, 6-3 and 5-2, in Kalamazoo in November. The games, scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on Friday and 7:05 p.m. on Saturday, kick off Miami’s 10-game regular-season stretch run. Friday’s game is scheduled to be televised on CBS Sports Network with Saturday’s on Time Warner Cable.

“…We don’t have freshmen on our team any more,” said junior captain Louie Belpedio. “We’re more than halfway through the season and the new guys have had the help from the returners and coaching staff that they need in order to play within our system and culture. I don’t want to say they’ve been ‘easier’ on us, because they’re still demanding of what’s to be expected from us every single day, but they’ve definitely been understanding of the situation and ultimately, that’s what leads to our success as a team.”

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