NCAA Midwest Regional Preview
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
It's unlikely that you, the reader and enthusiastic college hockey fan, came to this preview expecting a history lesson. But history is in fact the term that defines this weekend's NCAA Midwest Regional the best.
After one of the most memorable NCAA championship games in recent — yes — history, Miami returns to the NCAA tourney looking to avenge last year's title game loss to Boston University and boasting arguably its best team in program history.
Joining the RedHawks in this Regional are the Michigan Wolverines, whose history as a perennial tournament team was threatened until they claimed the CCHA tournament championship a week ago; the Bemidji State Beavers, who made history last season as the first CHA team to reach the Frozen Four; and the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, whose uncertain future as a program may one day be the subject of an entire chapter in a college hockey history book.
But here's the real history lesson.
The Miami Valley in southwest Ohio, sharing its name with the river that runs through it (the Great Miami River), is home to Oxford, Ohio and the campus of Miami University — named for the Miami tribe of Native Americans, who once settled in the region and in nearby Indiana.
Well, 220 years ago, in 1790, President George Washington ordered the United States Army to secure Indiana. Standing in his way? The Miami Confederacy tribe, led by their chief, Little Turtle. In the ensuing series of altercations, the Miami warriors won the first two battles. However, the rules weren't the same as a CCHA playoff series, and a third battle took place, in which the United States — led by General "Mad" Anthony Wayne — captured the region in 1794.
In honor of the General, the Army built a fort to mark its victory. Yes, you guessed it: the landmark was Fort Wayne, now an established city in eastern Indiana, where its Allen County War Memorial Coliseum will host this weekend's NCAA Midwest Regional.
The CHN Editors might have you believe that the NCAA selection committee sent Miami to Fort Wayne because of certain pre-ordained committee criteria. But maybe the committee members just knew their stuff, intentionally sending the RedHawks to the site of their namesake's last stand.
Of course, in this trip to Fort Wayne, as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, Miami hopes to make its own history. And — this time — leave victorious.
No. 1 Miami RedHawks
Final Pairwise position: 1
Season in a nutshell: CCHA 1st Place Finish; Lost in league semifinals to Michigan; At-large bid
NCAA Championships: None
First round opponent: Alabama-Huntsville (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
During the regular season, Miami cruised through its CCHA competition with unprecedented ease, losing just twice in 28 conference games and finishing in first place by 20 points. The RedHawks scored more than any team in the conference, and thanks to the nation's top goaltending pair, they allowed half as many goals as most CCHA teams.
But ask anyone to name the key player for the RedHawks? It's difficult to get an answer.
"Looking back, I don't know that we've ever had a team that's been as balanced or deep as this one," said RedHawks coach Enrico Blasi, who was named the CHN Coach of the Year earlier this week. "We know what we have in our locker room. We have some real good character, guys who can put the puck in the net, guys who can play in all different situations."
Again, an understatement. 15 players have double-digit point totals this year, with the truly balanced offense led by three 40-point scorers — senior Jarod Palmer and juniors Andy Miele and Tommy Wingels. Wingels, named the CCHA Defensive Forward of the Year, is one point shy of reaching the 100-point plateau for his career.
It's even difficult to identify the RedHawks' best goaltender, with netminders Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp sharing the spotlight between the pipes almost every week. Reichard and Knapp, both sophomores, are second and third in the nation, respectively, in goals-against average. For his efforts, Reichard was named the CCHA Player of the Year and is one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.
"Off the ice, they're great friends," said Blasi, whose team is 4-3-1 in its last 10 games. "They respect each other. They're always working hard off the ice and watching video, making sure that they're prepared, and getting better every day. On the ice, it's serious competition. They know they've got to push each other, and I think that makes each of them a little bit better every day. Our players are very confident in front of both of them."
An additional storyline for this Miami squad is that its success this season has not been without heartbreak and hardship. In early February, the team dealt with the death of Brendan Burke, the RedHawks' team manager and the youngest son of NHL general manager Brian Burke.
It was an experience that put everything into perspective for Blasi and the nation's top team.
"I think the things that we've gone through, all of us together, exemplifies what it means to be a family and what it means to be part of a program," said Blasi. "I think there's been a lot of adversity, not only publicly but internally as well, as far as life things that go on every day. Those are things where you need people who care about you to be there. Those are the things we pride ourselves on in our program. Hockey's something we love to do, but it's just a game. At the end of the day, there are a lot of life lessons and life situations that happen to everyone in our locker room. And we want to be there for everybody. This isn't just about hockey."
On Saturday afternoon, Blasi will lead the RedHawks into their first-round matchup with Alabama-Huntsville. Miami is 5-1 all time against the Chargers, who are making their first NCAA tournament appearance in program history after winning the CHA championship last weekend.
No. 2 Bemidji State Beavers
Final Pairwise position: 9
Season in a nutshell: CHA 1st Place Finish; Lost in league semifinals to Niagara; At-large bid
NCAA Championships: None
First round opponent: Michigan (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
"I don't know how much it helps, but it certainly doesn't hurt."
So says Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore, of the impact of his team's magical run to the NCAA Frozen Four a season ago. Now, like Miami, the Beavers skate into this year's NCAA tournament coming off a dominant regular season and a disappointing conference tournament result.
Serratore's crew led the CHA wire-to-wire this season, finishing with as many points as second-place Robert Morris and third-place Alabama-Huntsville combined. But it was the fourth team in the conference, Niagara, who scored the upset over Bemidji in the CHA semifinals, paving the way for eventual champion Alabama-Huntsville to give the league a second NCAA tourney team.
In that semifinal game against Niagara, Beavers starting netminder Dan Bakala — who has been a key component of the fifth best defense in the nation — allowed five goals, doing so for just the second time all season.
It was an anomaly during a year in which the sophomore earned 19 wins.
Said Serratore, "Goaltending is the key for everyone this time of year. Dan has been very good for us this year, and we hope he's good this weekend because every team's going to need their goalie this weekend. Including us. The goaltender's the backbone of every team."
At the other end of the ice, Serratore will look to his undisputed offensive leader to lead the way in the Beavers' showdown with the red-hot Michigan Wolverines on Saturday night.
"There's no question, Matt Read is our leader on the ice," said Serratore, now in his ninth year as head coach and making his fourth NCAA tournament appearance. "He's a player who's a factor in every game. If he's not a factor offensively, he's a factor away from the puck. His plus-minus (plus-30) is unbelievable, so when he's out there, he's a very difficult player to play against."
Read, who has 40 points in 36 games this season, was honored as the CHA Player of the Year, on an evening when Bemidji State swept the league's awards. Serratore was named Coach of the Year, and freshman forward Jordan George was selected as the league's Rookie of the Year.
Saturday marks Bemidji State's first-ever meeting against Michigan.
No. 3 Michigan Wolverines
Final Pairwise position: 12
Season in a nutshell: CCHA 7th Place Finish; CCHA tournament champion; Automatic bid
NCAA Championships: Nine (Most recent: 1998)
First round opponent: Bemidji State (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
For the 20th consecutive year, Michigan will play in the NCAA tournament. In that time, the Maize-and-Blue have appeared in 10 Frozen Fours.
But the journey to the NCAAs this season was considerably different than most of the other 19. The Wolverines lost 17 games this season, the most under coach Red Berenson since the 1987-88 campaign.
Coming down the stretch, Michigan was 3-4 in the month of February as it headed into its final two games of the regular season, a home-and-home series against Notre Dame. Halfway through the first period, starting netminder Bryan Hogan left due to injury. So in came Shawn Hunwick, with almost no NCAA playing experience, and the Sterling Heights, Mich., native made 14 saves the rest of the way to help shut out the Irish.
And it's been Hunwick who has started every game since.
The junior has compiled a sparkling 6-0 playoff record that includes a road quarterfinal sweep at Michigan State, a CCHA semifinal win over Miami, and a CCHA championship victory against Northern Michigan at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena last weekend.
Said Berenson, "We went into Joe Louis with some momentum. Our team totally expected to play Miami at Joe Louis, and that's the way it turned out. And they're a great team. I think we had maybe a little more motivation going into that tournament because if we didn't survive, and if we didn't emerge as champions, we would not be in the NCAA tournament. We knew that full well. So our team found a way, and we got it done."
In the championship game against Northern Michigan, junior forward Louie Caporusso scored twice, giving him 20 goals on the season. Under Berenson, the Wolverines have had at least one 20-goal scorer on its roster in 25 of the 26 seasons that the legendary coach has been behind the bench.
Also peaking for Michigan are juniors Carl Hagelin and Matt Rust and rookie Kevin Lynch. All had three points in the Wolverines' semifinal win over Miami, with Lynch scoring two goals in the 5-2 triumph.
Still, Hunwick, the CCHA tournament MVP, remains the story for the Wolverines, as they head into their first-round matchup with Bemidji State. For more on Hunwick and his surprising performance of late, see separate story.
No. 4 Alabama-Huntsville Chargers
Final Pairwise position: N/A
Season in a nutshell: CHA 3rd Place Finish; CHA tournament champion; Automatic bid
NCAA Championships: None
First round opponent: Miami (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Much to the chagrin of teams that finished the season "on the Pairwise bubble," Alabama-Huntsville makes its second appearance in the NCAA tournament, rounding out the Midwest Regional as the fourth-seeded team and entering the weekend as the reigning champions of the CHA — the final champion in the conference's final year.
The Chargers defeated Robert Morris, 1-0, in the CHA semifinals before toppling Niagara in the championship game. In the title game, Huntsville leading scorer Cody Campbell netted his eighth goal of the season, and rookie Kennan Desmet scored the game-winner in overtime.
"It's really exciting for our guys and our University," said Alabama-Huntsville coach Danton Cole. "We've got our work cut out for us. Miami's a heck of a team. There's not a lot of holes in their team."
Despite finishing the season with a record under .500, the Chargers enter the NCAA tournament with a three-game unbeaten streak. And 10 of their last 12 games have been closely contested one-goal affairs.
Said Cole, "Going through that quite a bit is always a good experience, to find ourselves in a tight game. I thought our guys reacted mentally really well to it — kept their focus, kept their discipline, and didn't get too rattled. That's something I was impressed with in our guys [in the CHA tournament], and we're going to need that. Everything doesn't go perfectly all the time, and how you react to it is what is important."
Like Miami, the Chargers' first-round opponent on Saturday, the Alabama-Huntsville community experienced tragedy this season as well. In mid-February, University professor and researcher Amy Bishop Anderson was arrested and charged with capital murder after shooting and killing three teachers during a biology department meeting on campus. The University shut down for several days, as the UAH community began the recovery process.
A week later, Cole and his team returned to the ice.
"Often times, athletic competition is something that gets everybody together, which you don't always have in University life," explained Cole. "For that reason, it can be part of the healing. We had the first formal University-sanctioned event after that week off on campus. The athletics department played a big part in getting us to carry on and to take that next step. The positive of us getting to the tournament is good for University, the student athletes, and the student body."
Now, the Chargers — who have won more games this season than the last two combined — take to the ice representing the CHA conference, as its champion. It's a brutally ironic twist of fate for a team that is still in search of a conference home, with the CHA set to disband at the end of this season.
The other three teams in the league have already been admitted to other conferences.
Said Cole, "Hopefully, as this door closes, another one opens. I think that this [NCAA appearance] will hopefully keep us in the conversation and keep us in people's minds. So people don't forget about us, and understand that we're still without a home and we're still looking. We're going to continue on, but our primary goal is to get into a conference and continue playing hockey at a Division I level."