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February 14, 2008 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Overrated Nonsense: Miami Has Nothing to Prove

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Having gone through this before, I can sympathize with Miami.

Calls of the 25-4-1 RedHawks being overrated were murmured for weeks prior to Miami's showdown last weekend with Michigan. But they became widespread cries of derision following the 4-2 pummeling on Friday at the hands of the Wolverines.

The claim going in was that Miami's schedule had been too soft, so it wasn't really as good as the record indicated.

Nevermind that Miami was No. 1 in KRACH (the most sophisticated ranking formula available) going into the weekend, and had beaten just about every team in its way. Nevermind that the Michigan team it lost to was No. 2 in the ratings, and had played by and large the same schedule as Miami. Nevermind that the defending national champs came from the CCHA.

In 2003, I saw up close as Cornell got called overrated the entire season. Cornell's schedule that year was even softer than Miami's, playing in the ECAC. Still, Cornell beat Ohio State to open the season, and everyone else in its way. Then the Big Red lost to Maine at Christmas time, and the doubters came out. Good gosh, it was Maine. Later, Cornell lost to Colgate, and you'd have thought the world was coming to an end.

All Cornell did was go out and run roughshod over a WCHA team in the first round of the NCAAs, then defeat Boston College to make the Frozen Four, and were a hair away from making the national championship game.

Miami coach Enrico Blasi made no excuses for his team's one-point weekend against Michigan, but he was understandbly annoyed by the overrated cries.

"They played very well, they (Michigna) were the better team," Blasi said. "At the same time, I don't think that changes anything. I think we're a good team. We need to get better in certain areas. We need to be ready to play at a high level.

"Just because they beat us, people are saying we're overrated. Well that's not necessarily true. They're pretty good. The schedule — they've played the same teams and they're only one point ahead of us. Does that mean because we beat Northern twice and they only tied them, that we're a better team? I don't understand."

You know what else? All of this is boring and a waste of time. Is a team overrated? I don't know — let it play out on the ice, that's the beauty of it. The "Overrated" debate is an ugly spawn of the "my conference is better than yours" debate, which is so 20th Century. It's old and who cares. Just enjoy the games and root for your team.

Here is what is fair to say: Playing a softer schedule might create a longer adjustment period when you come up against a high-caliber team. That is where the softer schedule might hurt.

The most glaring issues came on defense, where players were left watching the puck, and unable at first to match Michigan's new commitment to physical play and high-flying intensity, with two of the best lines in college hockey.

"I'd like to see our defensemen do a better job of clearing the puck," Blasi said.

"I don't know that we really established our game at all. ... You can't give (Chad) Kolarik and (Kevin) Porter that much room. ... That's something we'll have to address."

But Miami's schedule does not invalidate its accomplishments. Maybe they will go on and lose in the NCAAs. It happens. But it won't be because Miami is overrated.

Here, also, are some of the excuses the Blasi refused to make about last weekend:

• Miami has been without star player Nathan Davis most of the season, and he returned from a lengthy absence this past weekend. Getting him re-acclimated at that level is not easy, and getting the other star, Ryan Jones, re-acclimated to playing with Davis is not easy. "That's a reason we wanted to get (Davis) a chance to play against a team at a high level. If that doesn't get you going, nothing will," Blasi said.

• Carter Camper, a key contributor, was missing from the lineup and will be out a few weeks.

• Miami was coming off a one-week layoff. "They have a great team, no question," said Michigan coach Red Berenson. "They won't be happy about some parts of their game. Remember, they didn't play last week, so maybe they were a little rusty."

Blasi stayed away from all of that.

"They were the better team," Blasi reiterated. "They established their game right off the bat and we couldn't match that. For whatever reason. We had Carter Camper out. It was Nate's first game back. I could go through all that. But that takes away what they did to us."

But here's the thing.

Miami is good.

When Miami started to match Michigan's physical intensity on the second night, it was right there. Justin Mercier is an outstanding forward with over 20 goals who gets overlooked. He's got wheels and one of the best wrist shots I've seen this year.

"Palmer and Mercier are a pretty good second wave, and on some nights are the No. 1 wave. They continually work, work, work."

"I would say when Nate's healthy, maybe he's a touch faster, but Merc is up there for sure. Merc would probably beat you just because he doesn't want to lose. ... He's got a pro shot, no question about that."

And Jeff Zatkoff is a damn good goalie, and that's not withstanding the nine goals allowed.

I thought it was a wise move by Blasi and his staff to leave Zatkoff in the game despite allowing four first-period goals last Friday. Often, coaches will take a guy out to send a message to the rest of the team. But I don't think you need to punish the goalie in that situation by taking him out. It was nice to see the staff let Zatkoff play through it. And all in all, Zatkoff actually played really well from that point on.

"We talked about it," Blasi said. "We thought, one, we could pull him and send a message. Two, we could leave him in there and let him work himself our of it, because we know how competitive he is ... and make big saves to get him confidence for the next night."

On the Michigan side, let's face it, that's a scary team. And it's peaking at the right time, unlike some scary looking teams from the previous few seasons that tailed off down the stretch (see: Minnesota). It has three stud freshmen forwards, complementing Porter, Kolarik, Travis Turnbull and the like. The defense may not be deep, but it's strong. Sauer is not the best goalie in the country, but he's finally playing like a pretty good one.

"Three out of four points is certainly a lot better than the alternative," said Berenson, whose team blew a 5-3 lead in Saturday's tie. "We feel maybe we could've had another point out of it. But the execution was there. A lot of good things had to happen for us to come get three points."

Said Blasi, "In the big picture, I think it was a great experience for our team. To come back on Saturday will help us. You've got to give Michigan credit, and right now, we have work to do. But that's a good thing. We're not looking at it as a bad thing."

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