The last time the Miami University men’s hockey team did not make an NCAA tournament appearance, I wasn’t even in high school yet (Hint: I’m currently 23). The RedHawks are in serious danger of letting that streak end at eight appearances in a row.
In 26 games this season, Miami is an uncharacteristic 10-13-3. The RedHawks are tied for last in the newly-formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and they haven’t sniffed the Top 20 since Jan. 11, when, as No. 13, they were swept by unranked Western Michigan University – a sentence that should be cringe inducing and all too familiar to Miami fans.
It’s important to recognize the season isn’t over. The RedHawks still have time to make a run, and a tournament berth is still within their reach. We’ve seen it in hockey time and again (think the 2012 L.A. Kings). Still, it’s a valid question to ask what happened to get them in this position.
The short answer is I don’t have one. Despite his best efforts, I don’t think head coach Enrico Blasi does either.
The RedHawks began as a veritable powerhouse this year. The preseason No. 2 had all the indicators of a championship run. They lost just five seniors from 2012-13, and an insanely talented freshman class blossomed into a group of seasoned sophomores. After a hot start and a stint at No. 1 in the country, the ‘Hawks have faded into obscurity and are considered by many a non-factor moving forward.
To be fair to Blasi and company, injuries have plagued his usually-stellar squad. Jimmy Mullin, who was third in team scoring as a freshman, was seen on crutches during Saturday’s matchup. Blake Coleman has been inactive since he suffered an upper body injury in early December, though he still remains the fourth leading scorer on the team with only 17 games under his belt. Injuries, however impactful, do not exclusively result in 10-13-3 record.
The ‘Hawks have seen decent point production from support players all season, with six individuals in the double digits. Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber continue to be two of the best players in the NCAA, and by all accounts Miami has one of the most talented rosters in college hockey.
However, the ‘Hawks are one of the smallest teams in the country and are consistently outsized by opposing teams. It was evident on Friday night against an aggressive – and enormous – Western Michigan. They jumped all over the ‘Hawks in the first period, combining devastating open-ice hits with crushing corner play to drain Miami of any and all will, ending the game before it got started.
We saw it last year, when Miami got beat in the Midwest Region final by St. Cloud State University, 4-1. The Huskies dominated the much smaller RedHawks in all three zones, laying the lumber and finishing every single check available. With hitting statistics not readily available, it’s not something easily evident, but if you look at the tape, it’s glaringly apparent, and it’s something that Blasi doesn’t value as much as other coaches. Yes, missing Coleman’s physicality hurts, but just look at Cody Murphy. He’s been an animal all year. The “Bulldog,” as I call him, comes to play and works his butt off game in and game out, but rarely is he rewarded with a power play role or a spot on one of the top lines. Players like Kevin Morris and Alex Gacek, too, are still searching for a level of good, consistent play that has eluded them so far this year. With five points apiece, and just one point in the last 10 games for Gacek, Miami will need more firepower from its third and fourth liners such as these two if it wants to turn around its season.
If it sounds like I’m dissatisfied with Blasi’s coaching, forgive my tone. He’s a Spencer Penrose National Coach of the Year winner, he’s taken his team to two Frozen Fours and was within seconds of winning a National Championship. He’s won at least 20 games in each of his past eight seasons (one of only three coaches to make that claim,) and is a four-time CCHA Coach of the Year. Those of you calling for his job or debating his effectiveness need to check into the nearest mental hospital and spend a few weeks sorting some things out. He’s one of the best, and even the best have their rough patches.
That being said, he’s not at the top of his game this season. Too often has Miami been outcoached, especially right out of the gate and in the third period. They’ve been plagued by slow starts, they’ve been outscored in the final frame and they’ve struggled to find consistent goaltending from arguably the best tandem of 2012-13. Ryan McKay has dropped from an incredible .946 save percentage down to a .914. Williams has dropped from .924 to an abysmal .897, and neither sports a winning record this season.
The biggest, and least talked about loss for the RedHawks this season might be in the defensive zone. Though captain Steven Spinell and Joe Hartman were not the most talented players on the team, they offered size and experience that this Miami team severely lacks. The ‘Hawks look sluggish in the defensive zone, with sloppy passes and lost pucks in the corners that tend to result in less-than-desired outcomes, and headaches for a team that has all the promise in the world, but has delivered on none of it in 2014.
Miami has eight games remaining and at this point, the win/loss category is almost entirely irrelevant. All four teams ahead are Top 20 NCHC opponents, and even with four sweeps the RedHawks would likely be left on the outside looking in. They need quality, start to finish games, something that they haven’t produced all year. Blasi himself has admitted his team hasn’t played a full 60 minutes of RedHawk hockey.
The only way Miami extends their NCAA appearance streak to nine is if it captures the first ever NCHC championship, something that will undoubtedly be one of the toughest challenges of Blasi’s career. If his third and fourth line begin to turn up the play, and Blasi places physical play higher up on his list of imperatives, he and his boys may yet salvage the season.