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Louie Belpedio's return boosts Miami's blue line

University of North Dakota's Tucker Poolman tries to push past Miami's Scott Dornbrock during a matchup at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, ND on Friday, January 13, 2017. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)

Miami coach Rico Blasi was still waiting for a decision from star defenseman Louie Belpedio on whether he was going to sign with the Minnesota Wild or return for his senior season when the RedHawks started spring workouts.

But Blasi saw a sign.

Belpedio was going all-in on the physically and mentally exhausting workouts with the team.

"I thought, boy, this is a lot of work for a guy who isn't going to be here. I think he might stay," Blasi said.

Sure enough, he did.

Belpedio returned for his senior season, while forward Kiefer Sherwood declined to sign one of his several free agent NHL offers, making Miami one of two National Collegiate Hockey Conference teams not to lose anyone early to an NHL signing.

Belpedio's return was especially significant.

A year ago, the RedHawks were forced to play 12 games without him because of injury. They didn't win a single one (0-9-3).

Belpedio, a 6-foot, 200-pound, right-handed shooting defenseman from Illinois, has been one of the best blue liners in the country during the month of October.

He has four goals and seven points in eight games. He leads Miami with 36 shots on goal this season and leads the nation in shots on goal per game by a defenseman, averaging 4.50 per contest.

His play—and the emergence of junior defenseman Grant Hutton—has led 4-4 Miami to three wins in the last four games. The only loss in that span came last Saturday in a contest that the RedHawks held Colorado College to 14 shots on goal.

"I think our team is where I thought we'd be in terms of our development," Blasi said. "I think we've played really good hockey at times, and at times, we've kind of looked like a team with 19 freshmen and sophomores. For the most part, I've been very pleased with the way we've played."

This weekend's series between UND and Miami (7:37 tonight, 7:07 p.m. Saturday, Ralph Englestad Arena) features two teams who can win with depth.

The RedHawks have been splitting up speedy winger Gordie Green (13 points) and center Josh Melnick (eight points) on one line and putting Sherwood (four points) and Carson Meyer (three points) on another. They also are able to put former United States Hockey League standout Austin Alger (three points) on a third line.

UND, meanwhile, split veterans Shane Gersich (six points) and Austin Poganski (two points) on different lines last weekend, while forming a third line with dynamic rookies Jordan Kawaguchi and Collin Adams.

"Pick your poison," Blasi said about UND. "I think they're a deep team. They have four lines that can come in waves. They have really good high-end talent that's young, but can explode at any time. Their D-corps is solid, good goaltending. We need to play our game and focus on trying to play our best. We have a lot of respect for North Dakota. We just have to go out, work hard and play well."

Back in NCAAs?

Miami has reached the NCAA tournament in nine of the past 12 seasons. Ironically, the only three years the RedHawks missed the tournament—2014, 2016 and 2017—were the three years they hosted a regional in Cincinnati.

This year, Miami doesn't host and will look to get back for the first time since 2015, when they lost to Providence in the first round.

Only three current players competed in that game—Belpedio, defenseman Scott Dornbrock and forward Conor Lemirande.

Injury update

UND will play its second weekend in a row without goalie Cam Johnson, who sustained a lower-body injury during last Friday's morning skate, but he's not the only one who will be missing.

Senior forward Trevor Olson will be out for the second straight weekend with an upper-body injury and sophomore forward Ludvig Hoff is questionable with an upper-body injury. Hoff also missed last weekend's series against Wisconsin.

Junior forward Joel Janatuinen, who left last Saturday's game with an upper-body injury, participated in practice all week and will play against Miami, Berry said.

Miami at No. 2 UND

• When: 7:37 tonight, 7:07 p.m. Saturday.

• Where: Ralph Engelstad Arena (tickets available).

• Records: UND 6-2-2 (1-1 NCHC); Miami 4-4 (1-1 NCHC).

• TV/radio: Midco Sports Network (GF Ch. 27/622), NCHC.tv.; The Fox (96.1 FM).

• Of note: UND will play without starting goalie Cam Johnson for the second week in a row. Rookie Peter Thome (1-0-1) will start again in his place.

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 13th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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