By John Lachmann
Connor Knapp is making it a lot easier for Miami to piece together a much-needed winning streak.
The RedHawks senior goalie stopped 25 of 26 shots in a 2-1 win at Lake Superior State on Friday.
Knapp has started all three games since Christmas break, and he is 3-0 with a 0.66 goals-against average and a .975 save percentage in that span.
Lake Superior State opened the scoring when Kellan Lain fired a one-timer past Knapp with 2:27 remaining in the first period.
But Miami senior forward Alden Hirschfeld fired a loose puck in from point-blank range to tie the score just over a minute into the second frame.
Just under six minutes later, RedHawks junior forward Reilly Smith scored off a rebound shot to make it 2-1.
Knapp did the rest, stopping the final 19 shots he faced, including four in the final four minutes of regulation.
Hirschfeld and Smith have both scored in consecutive games, and senior defenseman Chris Wideman, who picked up one assist, has points in a team-high four games.
The RedHawks have won all three of their games since the start of 2012 and four straight on the road.
Miami, which is also above .500 in conference play for the first time this season (8-7-2), moved into a tie for third place in the CCHA with Notre Dame at 27 points.
The RedHawks and Lakers will wrap up their weekend series at 7:05 p.m. on Saturday.
ANALYSIS: This game is pure proof the goalie position is easily the most important in hockey, if not all of sports.
Look at Miami’s three-game winning streak. The RedHawks scored four goals in the Saturday win against Michigan State and could’ve won with average goaltending.
But in the two 2-1 games in that span, Knapp faced 60 shots. If Knapp was average in those games (and a .900 save percentage is the benchmark for average in today’s game), he would’ve allowed six goals in those games compared to Miami’s four.
So obviously the RedHawks wouldn’t have won both if it wasn’t for Knapp.
The break seems to have completely turned Knapp around. He stopped just 70 of 80 shots (.875) in his final four appearances of 2011, and is 78-for-80 (.975) since.
In past seasons Miami has occasionally struggled after the extended mid-season break, but the second half of 2011-12 is off to a very promising start.
More important than any poll or the conference standings are the Pairwise Rankings, which determine who makes the NCAA Tournament. The win on Friday vaulted Miami into a tie for 10th, despite the RedHawks having the worst winning percentage of any team in the projected field (.565).
That means Miami is playing a tough schedule. All but two of the RedHawks’ games (the series against Bowling Green) have been against TUCs – or teams under consideration – those teams that are either in the projected tournament field or on the bubble.
Miami’s 21 games against TUCs ties Michigan for the most in college hockey.
It helps that all four of the RedHawks’ non-conference opponents – Providence, Denver, Colgate and Bemidji State – are in that field.
The CCHA is also pretty strong this season. Six teams, including Miami, are in the projected tournament field (Ohio State, Northern, Western and just plain Michigan and Ferris State are the others). Michigan State and Lake Superior State are 19th and 20th, respectively.
So despite a forgettable start to this season, Miami is in a pretty good position to solidify a postseason berth, especially with rejuvenated goaltending and a freshman class that continues to get better every game.
FORWARDS: C+. They generated 30 shots, two of which found the net, dished for three assists and took three penalties. The minors resulted in two power plays.
The goals and assists are average at best, but the shot and penalty totals are encouraging, especially considering how many minors this team took in the first half of the season.
Smith and Hirschfeld, the two players Miami needs to put the puck in the net, both did so, and freshmen Jimmy Mullin and Blake Coleman both picked up assists.
Junior Curtis McKenzie, who has been maddeningly inconsistent during his entire Miami career, picked up the other helper, giving him four points in five games.
Sophomore Bryon Paulazzo, who was shaken up after being boarded early in the game, finished with seven shots, and Coleman had five.
DEFENSEMEN: B+. A goalie can certainly make a defense corps look good.
Miami allowed 26 shots on goal and only senior Cameron Schilling took a penalty.
The blueliners only managed four shots on goal, but Wideman did earn an assist for the fourth straight game.
Senior Will Weber blocked a team-best four shots.
GOALTENDING: A. Making a case for college player of the month, Knapp was superb for the third straight game.
After allowing the Lakers’ lone goal, he stopped the final 19 shots to allow Miami to take the lead.
Knapp also had to be solid late and was, turning aside four shots in the last four minutes.
LINEUP CHANGES: It was unclear who would take freshman Tyler Biggs’ place, since