Motoring on to Ford Field: Knapp, Miami Survive
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
FORT WAYNE, Ind. How fitting, that in a venue named the War Memorial Coliseum and in a town named for a war general, the final ticket to the 2010 Frozen Four was decided by nothing short of an all-out battle.
Miami sophomore Alden Hirschfeld ended the contest 1:54 into the second overtime period, concluding the longest game in Miami history and sending the RedHawks to their second consecutive Frozen Four. As the overjoyed Miami players dove into a pile around Hirschfeld — and as coach Enrico Blasi took a tumble to the ice in the midst of his excitement — it was the RedHawks' star goaltender of the evening breathing a sigh of relief.
Fifty-five saves by that goaltender, a career high, helped set the stage for Hirschfeld's heroics against Michigan, two minutes before the clock struck midnight, local time.
And we're not even talking about the one who's a Hobey Baker candidate.
"It probably wasn't as bad as it looked," said RedHawks sophomore goaltender Connor Knapp, whose 55 saves were a career high. "I just took it one shot at a time, and it ended up being a lot. But if you take it one shot at a time, you never feel like you're under siege."
Knapp, a 2009 draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres, has started 17 games this season, compared to 25 by classmate (and Hobey finalist) Cody Reichard. It was Knapp's first start of the season against Michigan, though he appeared in relief a week ago, when three quick strikes by the Wolverines chased Reichard in the RedHawks' CCHA semifinal defeat.
Two of those three goals were scored by Michigan rookie forward Kevin Lynch, and in Sunday's rematch in Fort Wayne, Lynch came close to providing the heroics again. His controversial disallowed goal — whistled dead by the officials after a delayed penalty call — and a hit post were among the many close calls in the first overtime period.
Michigan fired 20 of its 55 shots on goal in the first extra frame, while the RedHawks managed just six. More importantly, they managed to survive.
"As much as you tell these young guys that they're coming, sometimes they have to go through it," said Blasi. "It's like touching the oven when you're a kid. 'Don't touch the oven.'
"In overtime, unless you're playing and in the heat of the battle, you're on pins and needles because one shot can win you or lose you the game. We've been on the wrong side of a few of those over the last few years as well. But we just stayed focused. Both teams were tired, but there was a lot of passion and determination on the ice for both teams."
For his part, Knapp — whose victory was the first ever for Miami against Michigan in postseason play — actually seemed to enjoy the extra work.
"It keeps you in the game, and it keeps you focused," said the York, N.Y., native. "You know, I think maybe [Michigan goaltender Shawn Hunwick] was lulled to sleep there in the first overtime. He wasn't getting a lot of action. I like it when I get a lot of shots, and they were also a lot of shots from the outside. The guys did a great job in front of me and cleared all the rebounds out."
Knapp's 20 saves in overtime came almost four hours after the puck dropped. Long after RedHawks junior Pat Cannone scored two power play goals. And long after Knapp was tested in the game's opening seconds, making two point-blank saves before 10 beats had even ticked off the clock.
It would become the theme of the night. Though there were often rebounds — Knapp admitted that he "made more work for [himself] than [he] should have — the sophomore was always there to shut the door. A save on a shorthanded breakaway by Michigan's David Wohlberg. A sparking right pad stop on Carl Hagelin in the overtime.
"Tonight was Connor's night," said Blasi. "We reminded him that Michigan shoots from everywhere, and be ready. And he was, right off the bat. I thought the two saves he made in the first shift of the game really got his focus right away."
With each save, fans for both sides seemed to inch closer to the edges of their seats. It was all part of a breathtaking overtime, which — again — mostly consisted of Michigan's shooting gallery on Knapp.
Continued Blasi, "We've been in those situations before where one teams' getting all the chances and then all of a sudden you come down the ice and win. The more it went that way, the more we thought we were going to get a bounce. At least in my mind anyway."
In the end, Blasi's rotating goaltender system paid off again. With Reichard getting the win in the RedHawks' first round win against Alabama-Huntsville, and with Knapp earning the honor of the Regional's Most Outstanding Player, the question post-game naturally came up. Who's starting in next week's NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game against Boston College on Detroit's Ford Field?
Blasi's been asked that question so much during the year that he's starting to get creative with his responses.
"Whether it's Connor or Cody, we're going to be ready to go," said the CCHA and CHN Coach of the Year. "Just like we did this week, the cardinals will get together, and we'll elect a pope come next Thursday."
For Miami, its the program's second straight Frozen Four. Although the last — which ended with a national title game loss to Boston University — seems so very long ago.
Said Blasi, "It feels like 10 years ago. It's hard to believe that a year's gone by. We're excited. If you walk by our locker room, you can tell. We'll get a couple days of rest here, and we'll start preparing for Boston College. I keep saying everything happens for a reason.
"And so, Boston College," continued Blasi, grinning widely. "Here we go."