The long and storied rivalry between Western Michigan and Miami means very little to Matheson Iacopelli these days.
The 6-3, 203-pound Chicago Blackhawks prospect could care less that Miami leads the all-time series 65-58-11 or that the Broncos are 32-24-7 against their former CCHA rivals in Kalamazoo.
Ancient history, in the sophomore forward’s mind, as is last week’s sweep at the hands of NCHC power Denver.
“I’ve only played against Miami twice last year and we lost both games,” Iacopelli said. “Last year we didn’t have that great of a season, but that year is over and this year we’re ready to have a great season. Last weekend was a little rough losing to Denver, but we were in both games and it’s a different feeling around the team this season. We have a lot of returning guys who have a point to prove that we’re here to win.”
Miami is coming off a series split with WCHA power Bowling Green, which should make for some entertaining college hockey to watch Friday night when ASN televises the opening game of the weekend series in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Iacopelli leads the Bronco with five goals in six games, tied for 12th in the nation with, among others, Miami senior Anthony Louis.
Western Michigan is 3-2-1 overall and an 0-2-0 in the NCHC. Miami is 3-2-2 overall and opens NCHC play this weekend.
Iacopelli is right, though, the Broncos’ mindset is a far cry from the team that opened last season 4-2-1 and won just four more games the rest of the season. All but three players return and Iacopelli said the familiarity and experience has helped so much that he doesn’t believe WMU should be labeled darkhorses in the NCHC; he believes they are contenders.
“Be Like Ike” has taken on a new meaning in Kalamazoo, where the real official team motto is “DWD.”
“It stands for Do What you’re supposed to Do when you’re supposed to do it and do it all the time,” Iacopelli said. “We’ve done well on our power play because we have set plays and we know where each other will be.”
Iacopelli credits the coaches with creating a different mindset by installing “performance edge” practice sessions where players work on puck control, stickhandling and other skills an extra 30 minutes a day three to four times a week.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I think it’s played a big part in our success.”
Western Michigan’s offense is tied for 16th nationally, scoring at 3.67 goals per game and defensively the Broncos are tied with Minnesota for 25th at 2.83 goals per game. Miami is ranks 44th offensively (2.43 goals) but is one of the top defensive teams in the country in allowing just two goals per game (7th in the nation)
The Broncos have scored on 14 of 51 power play opportunities (27.45 percent) to rank third in the nation while Miami has converted 10 of 50 chances (20 percent). The Redhawks rank third in the country in penalty kill (38 for 40, 95 percent).
Iacopelli is an intriguing prospect for Chicago. He has the prototypical size of an NHL player with tremendous offensive potential. In two seasons in the USHL with the Muskegon Lumberjacks he was named All-USHL First Team for 2013-14 season after leading the league with 41 goals and he totaled 69 goals and 38 assists for 107 points in 125 career games.
He is the first to say he had trouble adjusting to the speed of college hockey as a freshman, but feels comfortable now and is improving as a two-way player.
An interesting matchup to watch Friday on ASN will be when Iacopelli is near the front of the Redhawks’ net. One of the top NHL prospects in college hockey is Miami junior defenseman Louie Belpedio, who was taken three picks earlier than Iacopelli in the third round of the 2014 NHL draft by the Minnesota Wild.
Belpedio was an alternate captain for Team USA at the World Junior Championship last season and is regarded as one of the top blue liners in college hockey. And while Belpedio is a known commodity around college rinks, Iacopelli is just starting to serve notice after scoring one goal all of last season.
“I really didn’t know what to expect last season and was never really asked to play defense before and wasn’t prepared,” Iacopelli said. “This summer I shot a lot of pucks and worked out extra hard. Coming out of summer I had a lot of confidence and this year I’ve had an opportunity to play and I’m going with it.”Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu. Follow him on Twitter @DakotaHI.