Miami-Bemidji State Preview
CHN Staff Report
Miami sat home for a weekend, just waiting to see if it would still sneak into the NCAA tournament. Now, after two "upset" wins at the NCAA West Regional, to qualify for the Frozen Four for the first time in the program's history, it finds itself the "favorite" in the national semifinals (Thursday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Of course, those terms mean nothing this year, as we've already seen.
"I don't know if there's an underdog or a favorite going into a national semifinal," Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. "People need to give Bemidji a lot of credit. Notre Dame is one of the stingiest defensive teams in the country, and they dominated them. And Cornell is probably the second stingiest, and they dominated them. So I think both teams are equally impressive."
Meanwhile, Bemidji State was not just the lowest-seeded team in the tournament, winner of the automatic bid from a conference that's on its last legs, but it was 37th in KRACH — the mathematical system endorsed by CHN as the most accurate indicator of past results.
The key there is "past results," because that went out the window for the Beavers. The team was 16-15-1 during the regular season, though after facing a lot of tough out-of-conference teams early, the Beavers got their footing and went 10-2-1 down the stretch. That was followed by the four postseason wins so far.
The same week Bemidji State broke ground on a new arena, is the same week it qualifies for the Frozen Four for the first time in Division I.
Now, the Beavers are trying to put aside the distractions, and just keep doing the same thing. And why not? Their 9-2 goal differential is the best of any team in the tournament.
"The hay's in the barn," said the always-glib Tom Serratore, BSU coach. "The bottom line is when we play relentless, when we play with the pursuit like we did against Cornell (in the Regional final), they see it, we can sense it. When the timing is off, we don't have relentless pursuit, we're late to pucks — our team is easy to play against. It's not something we need to work on, we just need to maintain the focus of how we want to play."
That won't be easy for a team that isn't used to this environment. Despite a long history of success as a program in lower levels, something that Serratore tries to milk, this is a brand new stage for everyone involved. The town of Bemidji has been celebrating this for eight straight days, including the hundreds that showed up when the team's plane landed from Grand Rapids after winning the regional.
On the other hand, Miami hasn't been here before either. In fact, no player in the Frozen Four has ever participated in the Frozen Four — something that hasn't happened since 1990.
"Even though we're a 4 seed, we did have big wins (this season)," Blasi said. "We went through a stretch where we won eight in a row. So we didn't feel like this was a year we kind of got lucky — we felt like we had a good team, we just needed to put it together. That's the trick with young guys. But we had some pretty good leadership."
And in Bemidji's favor — it has the only non-freshman starting goaltender of the four teams, in sophomore Matt Dalton.
"When we have lead, we know how to shut it down and protect the house around Dalton," said BSU forward Matt Read.
Both of these teams had a week off before the NCAA Regional, though for different reasons. Miami lost its CCHA quarterfinal series to Northern Michigan.
"The mood wasn't very good. We needed help to get in," Blasi said. "We found out about 1:30 in the morning that we got help. The fact that Alaska beat Ohio State meant we were in good shape. So we had two weeks to mentally prepare. ... Over the course of the year, we felt our resume was good enough to be in the top 16. Then we had an opportunity and we didn't want to let that slip away."
Bemidji State won the CHA tournament championship, which is played a week earlier than the other ones.
Something about the week off seems to have helped everyone in this year's tournament. It certainly didn't cool off Bemidji's top line of Tyler Scofield, Matt Read and Matt Francis.
"We know we have to play better than the other team's top line," Scofield said. "When you're getting points, you're confident, and I think we're very confident right now."
While the Beavers have that top line, Miami's offense is deep. Sophomore Carter Camper leads the team in scoring, while senior Justin Mercier has gotten hot after a frustrating regular season that saw a dropoff from last year's totals. Pat Cannone, Andy Miele, Gary Steffes all bring scoring punch, and different intangibles to the table.
Miami has settled upon Cody Reichard as its No. 1 goalie for the NCAAs, after a season of going back and forth between him and the younger, "true" freshman Connor Knapp. Reichard had a rough stretch in midseason, while Knapp had been steadier, until the CCHA tournament.
"We knew it was a big decision going into the weekend," Blasi said. "In those games where we pulled (Reichard), by no means were they his fault. We were going through a stretch where we weren't playing well. Strange things were happening on the ice, and he happened to be in net. He lost his confidence a bit. (Taking time out) gave him some time to focus on the things he does well, and he worked extremely hard in practice. And once we saw the confidence coming back, he was right back in there. It only took a couple of weeks."
It's already a season of firsts for both of these teams, so whatever team wins, will get another first — their first national championship game.
"Their speed, goaltending is excellent, their 'D' corps plays extremely well, they're well-coached so we know they'll be prepared," Blasi said of Bemidji State. "Have we seen this before? Absolutely, we play in a tough league. We see it day in and day out. And frankly, we see it everything in the country. There are no easy games in college hockey. There's no opponents that you can say are any different than what you played the weekend before."