Youth Movement Key For Miami
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
OXFORD, Ohio "Pretty good. Put it on my headstone."
So responded a smiling Miami coach Enrico Blasi following Saturday's win against Michigan, after being told that he is the first coach in over 15 years to sweep CCHA powerhouses Michigan State and Michigan on consecutive weekends.
And leave it to a pair of freshman goaltenders to help him pull off that improbable feat. Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp have alternated time in net for Miami this season, and this weekend, Reichard made 20 saves on Friday night for a 2-0 shutout win, while Connor Knapp stopped 25 of 26 shots on Saturday for a 2-1 victory.
After the game, the Redhawks jumped enthusiastically off the bench to mob Knapp at the net, knocking the net backwards — a scene you might see more often in March or April than in November. But this was a big series for the Redhawks, and they all knew it. Recall that this was a team that failed to knock off the Wolverines in three meetings last year, including in the CCHA championship game.
Of course, Reichard and Knapp couldn't care less about last year. They hadn't even arrived on campus yet.
"I just think the credit goes to them," said Blasi of his rookie netminders. "They work hard during the week, watching video and making sure they're out there early for practice. Then they stay late after practice. They really compete against each other. You put in the work, and you're going to reap the benefits. And that's holding true for both Connor and Cody."
While Michigan has seen well-documented contrasting results — arguably a different level of effort, even — depending on which of their two goaltenders is in the net, the situation for the Redhawks hasn't been nearly as complicated.
Said Blasi, "They're very positive guys, so guys want to play in front of them. You can see how many times we block shots, which is very important for a goaltender."
On Saturday, it was a save by Knapp that led to a game-changing momentum shift and the first goal of the game for Miami. With less than two minutes remaining in the first period and Miami at the tail end of a five-minute major power play advantage, Michigan senior center Travis Turnbull took advantage of a turnover at the Redhawks blue line to skate in all alone on Knapp. Turnbull made a move to his backhand, but Knapp denied the shorthanded attempt, keeping the game scoreless.
At least for a few seconds.
Mere moments later, Miami's Carter Camper took advantage of a Michigan defensive turnover and scored for the Redhawks at the other end, sending the home crowd at Steve Cady Rink into a frenzy.
Recalled Knapp, "I knew I had to be ready in case they got a break. And they did. So right before he got it, I told myself I was ready for it. I think it was a huge momentum shift. After the save, we went down and scored right away. So I think that could have been the turning point in the game."
"Obviously it was huge for him to make the save, but that really turns the game around," added Miami sophomore Tommy Wingels, who later scored the eventual game-winning goal. "We sort of get spoiled because we expect it every time now. He's been doing great all season."
Indeed, Reichard and Knapp have not only swept Michigan State and Michigan the last two weekends, but they also swept Notre Dame — last year's national runner-up — in a series in South Bend last month. They have combined for an 8-2-2 league record, have helped their team win six straight games against ranked-opponents, and will now take their act on the road again, next weekend at Western Michigan.
But the two netminders are not the only members of the Miami youth movement this season. While the rookies have anchored the goaltending duties, the offensive support has primarily come from the sophomore class — a class that includes Pat Cannone, Andy Miele, and Camper, a trio accounting for three of the top four scorers on the team.
And it was the sophomores — Miele (2), Wingels, and Camper — who scored all four goals this weekend against the Wolverines. The Redhawks are now 7-0-1 this season when scoring the first goal of the game.
"Our sophomore class is pretty good," said Blasi, acknowledging that he was making an understatement. "I just think those guys have been there before. They did a pretty good job as freshmen, so they have a lot of experience. We're going to need them — and the juniors and seniors — to lead the way, and hopefully our freshman class continues to grow and mature and we'll be clicking on all cylinders at the right time."
So what's more surprising to Blasi — the sophomore class leading the offense after the departure of last year's Hobey finalist Ryan Jones or the aforementioned freshmen between the pipes?
"I get to see them everyday, so that's kind of a unfair question for me," answered Blasi. "But we're very pleased with the freshman goaltenders. I'm not sure anyone would have predicted that."
Perhaps not. But for a team that has steadily improved through the years, even amassing 33 wins last season, all of this can't be too much of a surprise. Especially when Blasi has managed to take an old sports cliche — taking things "one game at a time" — and turn it into the very culture of the Miami hockey program.
Explained Blasi, "We're really not looking for landmarks or defining games or anything like that. That's for when your career's over. Right now, we're focused on getting better every game. We're still a work in progress... Every series, every game, that you win, you gain a little bit of confidence. Our focus is on our daily improvement, but you hope that you continue to build."
Well, building on a foundation that includes a talented sophomore class of forwards and a diligent pair of freshman netminders is certainly a pretty good start.