ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Micah Miller moved into a tie for eighth in NCAA Division I men's hockey in an offensive category on Friday. It's one that can be a cause for some good-natured ribbing, though.
"He's the best empty-net goal (scorer) in the league right now," St. Cloud State men's hockey coach Brett Larson said with a smile.
Miller picked up his second empty-net goal of the season on Friday, but also picked one up with a goalie in the net on Saturday to help the Huskies sweep Miami in an NCHC series at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
Miller laughed when he heard that his coach had been joking about his empty-net prowess.
"It's funny because in juniors, I'm pretty sure that my first four goals were all empty-netters," he said. "I got a lot of crap for that, too. It was pretty funny.
"They still count. They don't ask how, they ask how many?"
The Huskies (7-9-0-0 NCHC, 10-12-4 overall) are 4-2 in their last six games and Miller has three goals and two assists in that span.
"He's getting rewarded for playing the right way, not afraid to go to the tough areas and it's paying off for him," Larson said of the 5-foot-9, 198-pound Miller. "He's not big, but his legs and his core and how he's built are really, really strong. He's hard to knock off the puck. Once he gets an edge on a defenseman on the rush, his speed and strength are really hard to stop. He's playing determined to get to those tough areas and that makes him hard to stop.
"He's been a spark for our team in the second half.
In the first half of the season, Miller had one goal and five points in his first 13 games and was a healthy scratch three times.
"The team, like me, got off to a slow start," he said. "I think we're just building and the big thing for us is just playing consistently and bringing it every weekend.
"I feel like I've been playing a lot better recently, playing more consistently at practice and in games."
Miller said that confidence in his own play has played a role in his better second half this season. Against Miami, he had three points in St. Cloud State's seven goals in the series and played on a line with Nick Poehling at center and Jack Poehling on left wing.
"It's always fun to play with those two guys because they're two of the hardest workers on the team, night in and night out," Miller said. "I feel like we play pretty good together and have pretty good chemistry.
"I feel like we play pretty similar games: work hard, get in on the forecheck, force turnovers and be hard over the puck."
Miller was a plus-3 on the weekend and Larson said that fans should expect to see the line together this weekend at Colorado College.
"The theory with that line is that if they can get it low in the offensive zone, now you're making some of the best offensive players defend ... and they'd rather be down on the other end playing offense. That line had some chemistry," Larson said. "They're all strong, tenacious players who never give up on a puck. Their best quality is that they're really hard to play against.
"It's going to be hard to break that line up."
Miller will have to find new linemates next season because the Poehlings are both finishing out their eligibility this season.
But when he gets to next summer, Miller said he expects another change because he plans to live in St. Cloud during the summer rather than going back to live at his family's home in Remer, Minn.
Remer is a town in northern Minnesota with less than 400 residents. Miller played his high school for Grand Rapids, which is about 45 minutes away, and helped the Thunderhawks win the Class 2A state title as a senior in 2017.
While he is remembered for playing on that team, his hockey career began in Crosby, Minn., which is about 30 minutes away from Remer. He changed to Grand Rapids youth hockey at age 10.
"In Crosby, all we had was 'B' teams and we didn't have enough for 'A' teams," said Miller, who said he got moved up to squirts a year early. "When I moved to (Grand) Rapids (hockey), it was a pretty big deal. I was pretty scared and nervous. It ended up turning out OK. All the guys were good to me."
Yeah, Miller helped his bantam team win a state title before helping the Thunderhawks go to back-to-back state tournaments his last two seasons.
After helping Grand Rapids win the state title, Miller finished the season playing junior hockey for the Sioux City Musketeers in the United States Hockey League. But when he did, he bypassed the last season of something that he enjoyed.
Miller was a sprinter on the track and field team as a sophomore and a junior. He mostly ran the 100- and 200-meter events and was on the 400 relay team.
"I liked it a lot. I wish I could have done it my senior year," he said. "I like the adrenaline you get before a race, trying to beat every guy in your heat ... it was just a lot of fun. Get a couple hockey teammates to do it with you and it makes it more fun."
The fact that he was a sprinter on the track team would not be a surprise to people who have seen him play. Miller is one of St. Cloud State's fastest skaters. But being a fast skater does not always equate to fast running.
"When I'd go to track, I'd run like a skater. I didn't have good running form," said Miller, who said his best time in the 100 was 11.2 seconds. "I think you have longer strides with hockey and it's just different, running style vs. skating."
Walker, Fitzgerald return to practice
Miller was put on a line with the Poehlings because sophomore center Nolan Walker and junior wing Kevin Fitzgerald missed the series because they were battling the flu. The pair have been practicing this week and are expected to play.