Miami University’s road back to the Frozen Four began where the 2008-09 season ended – with a gut-wrenching loss whose emotional aftershock evolved into a hardened resolve to return to that place again and finish what was started.
Defeats like that can be difficult to grapple with unless one buys into the notion that everything happens for a reason, that things are just meant to be a certain way sometimes. This is the approach that head coach Enrico Blasi has taken as he’s led his team on a 29-7-7 journey back to the Frozen Four this season.
Throughout 2009-10, the Brotherhood has endured tragedy, persevered, grown closer and sought to gain something from every loss. From a season of consistency and a few tough defeats, Blasi’s boys have acquired tools that have the potential to help them to achieve the goal that has been a year in the making.
“We’re much more experienced now,” junior captain Tommy Wingels said. “We’ve got guys who have been in the national tournament before and who have played in the Frozen Four. We’ve been through a lot of situations both on the ice and off the ice that, either way, help you on the ice. We’ve grown closer as a team and as a Brotherhood, and I don’t think that’s something you can overlook.”
In Thursday’s National Semifinal game, the Red and White will face a familiar foe in Boston College (BC) – a team the RedHawks came up short against three straight years in the NCAA Tournament. In 2005-06, Miami fell 5-0 to the Eagles in the Northeast Regional Semifinal in Worcester, Mass., just 40 miles west of BC’s stomping ground.
In 2006-07, the Red and White earned its first ever NCAA Tournament win over the University of New Hampshire to advance to the Cambridge, Mass. Regional Final, only to fall 4-0 to the Eagles the following night. The following season, the RedHawks again found themselves in Worcester and, after besting Air Force to advance, fell again to the Maroon and Gold in the Final, 4-3 in overtime.
“Since I’ve been here my freshman year we played them in the regional final, so there was a lot at stake then and obviously there’s a little more at stake now with it being the Frozen Four,” Wingels said. “They knocked us out a couple of years in a row and you’ve got to have that in the back of your mind.”
Now Miami finds itself on the precipice of facing BC in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years, this time closer to home. The Red and White has the Eagles’ number and vice versa. The difference this time lies in the maturity and experience that the RedHawks have gained, during of the last few seasons as well as over the course of the last few games.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Blasi said. “You know, we went through game three with OSU who plays a more transitional style, and then losing to Michigan (in the CCHA Semifinal), and then having to play against Ferris, and then playing Michigan again – all of those are helping to prepare us for the ultimate game.”
The key to this series of contests is stylistic. Miami plays a calculated, puck-possession, defensive-style game that normally stymies any opponent, but the RedHawks most recent matchups have pitted them against several offensive powerhouses. Teams like this require extra practice to solve, and the Red and White could not have received better training and experience going into this Thursday’s matchup v. BC.
“Leading into the NCAA Tournament, we faced five games in a row where we were playing highly offensive teams that if they didn’t win, their season was over,” Palmer said. “It gave them extra motivation to play hard against us and prepared us for what we were going to face down the stretch. It really showed us how hard you have to play if you want to move on …We had five games in a row where it was do or die.”
The Maroon and Gold wins games by shocking the opposition with an explosive offense that averages 3.98 goals per game and ranks third in the nation. BC has a 20.3 percent success rate on the power play, and its combined special teams rank 14th in the country. The Eagles help their cause by staying out of the box themselves, averaging a low 12.6 minutes per game.
Sophomore Cam Atkinson, who scored a hat trick in BC’s Regional Final victory over Yale University March 28, leads the offensive charge with an astounding 50 points to his name this season. The Greenwich, Conn. native’s 27 goals – 10 of which have come on the man-advantage – rank second in the country. Rounding out the Eagles talented top three forwards is a pair of juniors, each with 16 goals this season. Brian Gibbons has tallied 46 points this season, while Joe Whitney has 39. Fans who recall the last time Miami faced the Maroon and Gold will remember Whitney as the freshman whose highlight reel-worthy goal in overtime put the Red and White out of the running for the Frozen Four in 2008.
The RedHawks’ lineup is balanced and skilled, with contributions coming from all four lines each and every game. This versatility allows Miami to run and gun with the fastest, most offensive teams, but, given the choice, the Brotherhood prefers to make other teams adhere to its defensive style of play that begins with puck possession by the forwards and ends with Miami’s two No. 1 goaltenders.
Blasi’s team features eight players who have tallied 20-plus points, three of whom have 40 or more apiece. Palmer and juniors Andy Miele, Wingels, Carter Camper and Pat Cannone lead the team in goals and collectively account for 54 percent of the team’s scoring.
Dig deeper and you’ll find 15 other players who have put the puck in the net this season, from senior fourth line center Brandon Smith to double-threat defensemen sophomore Chris Wideman and freshman Joe Hartman.
A talented tandem of sophomore goaltenders rounds out the rock solid defense that lies at the core of Miami’s strategy. Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp have combined for a stingy 1.84 goals-against average that tops the nation. Many times, when a team uses more than one net minder during playoff time, it’s a sign of trouble. This is not the case for Reichard and Knapp, who constantly support and challenge one another to perform at elite levels, and whose matched abilities have sparked a fierce debate as to who Blasi will put between the pipes on Thursday.
This rock solid defense may give the RedHawks just the edge they need over the Eagles on Thursday. BC has averaged 4.74 goals in wins this season but has fallen to defensive powers such as Denver and UMass Lowell, averaging 2.1 goals in losses.
In order to pull off a win, however, the Red and White will have to actively stay on top of its systems and leave no room for error.
“We’ll have to pay attention to detail and take care of the puck, because if we don’t, the next thing we know they could put a few up on us,” Blasi said.
The Eagles did it in the 2008 Regional Final, responding to the RedHawks’ early two-goal lead with three goals in less than two minutes late in the second period. They did it again in this year’s Northeast Regional Final, netting three straight goals on two occasions in an eventual 9-7 victory over Yale.
Palmer said that if there is anything Miami has learned to do this season, it’s to keep composure and a steady pace against teams like BC.
“The biggest difference between our team this year and our team last year is the level of composure and patience, especially going into the last minutes of the game,” Palmer said. “We’ve practiced that this year – the type of urgency and patience that you need going into the final moments that keeps the score where it is instead of letting in explosive, last minute goals.”
Even if Miami does encounter some adversity, Palmer emphasized his team’s ability to persevere.
“When we’re down a goal or two, that’s when the Brotherhood really comes together,” Palmer said. “A lot of other teams either start to fall apart or start getting on each other, but our team really pulls together.”
Both teams have proven their worth in getting to this point, and it’s hard to say how Thursday’s game will go. One thing is for certain: the Brotherhood is thrilled to be making its second consecutive trip to college hockey’s greatest stage.
“There’s so much excitement in the team,” Wingels said. “This is the most fun part of the season, and when we got there last year it was one of the highlights of everyone’s life.”
Miami and BC are set to play the late game at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. RIT and Wisconsin will face off at 5 p.m. that same day. The winners will face off in the National Championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 10. ESPN2 will provide television coverage of the semifinal games. Fans can also follow along with WMSR’s live coverage of Miami’s tournament play at http://www.redhawkradio.com.