Miami Overcomes Pressure, Hardship
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
NCAA Tournament overall seed: 1
NCAA Tournament thus far: Won Midwest Regional (2-1 win vs. Alabama-Huntsville, 3-2 2OT win vs. Michigan)
NCAA Championships: None
Last NCAA Frozen Four: 2009
NCAA Frozen Four semifinal opponent: Boston College (Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN 2)
In many ways, we might have seen this coming — a national title runner-up returning to the NCAA Frozen Four just a year later, thanks to the return of eight of its top 10 scorers and two "No. 1" starting goaltenders.
A closer look, however, shows that Miami's return to the Frozen Four has defied odds as well. The RedHawks are in fact the only team from last year's Frozen Four field to return to college hockey's grand stage this weekend. And of the four finalists from the previous year, three (Michigan, Notre Dame, North Dakota) have now gone two seasons without a Frozen Four appearance.
Perhaps most impressively, Miami has rapidly overcome an almost unimaginable mental obstacle — that of refocusing an entire program for another title run, just months after the most heartbreaking loss in RedHawks history. After all, who doesn't know by now the truly tall tale of Boston University's dramatic D.C. triumph in last April's national championship game?
The game re-aired on ESPN Classic in December as one of the most memorable sports contests of the entire decade, and the images — of the Terriers scoring two goals in the final minute of regulation, of Colby Cohen's one-in-a-million title-winning deflection goal in overtime, and of Miami goaltender Cody Reichard in tears on the ice afterwards — will be etched in our minds forever.
And for No. 1 Miami, head coach Enrico Blasi, and Hobey Baker Top 10 finalist Reichard, the reminders of the game come on almost a weekly basis, mostly thanks to questions from the national media.
Said team captain and San Jose Sharks draft pick Tommy Wingels, "Each guy [did] their own thing — pouted for a bit or cried. But a couple days after that, we sat down as a team and said that we could handle it in a bunch of different ways. We can scream about it for days and weeks, or we can start working again. And we took the second route.
"We looked at each other in the eye and said, 'This is the most fun we've ever had in our lives. Getting here with the guys we love, the guys we spend every day with, was unbelievable. And we've got to keep this feeling in our heads.' I think that's something that stuck with us throughout the summer and forced us to work harder and come closer as a team."
Keeping the team on track has been Blasi, the CCHA and College Hockey News Coach of the Year, who received a contract extension this week to remain the head coach at his alma mater through the 2016-17 hockey season. Blasi is the winningest coach in Miami history, and no team in the nation has a better record than the RedHawks since the 2005-06 season.
But it was perhaps in this 2009-10 campaign that his leadership was needed more than ever before.
"[Last year's title game loss] was hard to swallow, no question about it," said Blasi this week. "We talked about it as a family. We talked about it a number of times. We wanted to somehow get an opportunity to be there again. Well there's a certain process you have to go through to get there. And that's what we focused on. We made sure each and every weekend that we respected who we were going to play and played at a top level."
And that, they certainly did all season long. However, despite losing just twice in 28 CCHA conference games and finishing in first place by 20 points, Miami — believe it or not — faced its share of adversity within the season as well.
A late November stretch saw the RedHawks win just once in six games. They responded to that by merely recording three consecutive shutout victories — two by sophomore Cody Reichard and one by classmate Connor Knapp. Reichard and Knapp have alternated starts almost all season, and though it remains to be seen who will start in Thursday's Frozen Four semifinal, the recent pattern indicates it's Reichard's turn.
Then, on February 6, the RedHawks — a team Blasi frequently describes as a "family" — lost a brother in team manager Brendan Burke, who tragically died in an automobile accident in Indiana. And though a somber mood filled the Goggin Ice Center in Oxford, Ohio, for the Redhawks' game against Lake Superior that same night, Blasi's crew simply reeled off 10 wins in 14 games the rest of the season. Indeed, it's been a lion-hearted effort that has led all the way to this weekend's trip to the home of the NFL's Detroit Lions, Ford Field.
So, with the off-ice hardships, the pressure, and the sheer unpredictability in today's college hockey landscape, should we have seen this — Miami's return to the Frozen Four — coming? In many ways, not at all.
But the most impressive part may be that Blasi and his team have kept everything in perspective.
"Off the ice, our coach stresses family and brotherhood and leaning on each other," said Wingels, who joins teammates Jarod Palmer, Andy Miele, and Carter Camper as 40-point scorers this season. "On the ice, we can't take anything for granted. You don't know what tomorrow's going to bring, so you've got to make the best out of each game and each practice and get better each day.
"Like Coach says, hockey's just a game. This is real life."
On Thursday night in Detroit, a city known for its blue-collar work ethic and attitude, this hard-working Miami team will square off against legendary coach Jerry York and Boston College. The Eagles, making their ninth Frozen Four appearance in the last 13 seasons, eliminated Miami from the NCAA tournament in three consecutive seasons before last year (2006, 2007, 2008).
So the RedHawks, of all teams, certainly won't be looking ahead to a return to the NCAA title game just yet. After all, this is a team that takes almost nothing for granted — not even lineup spots or the security of regular lines.
Explained Wingels, "We're a very deep team, both offensively and defensively. It's a battle day in and day out to get into the lineup. I think that makes us hard to match up against, when you have four lines rolling."
"Sometimes when you've played with a certain player or a couple players all year, you get stale," continued Blasi, of his trademark line-juggling this season. "Maybe having one or two new guys on your line gives you a little bit of an excitement level where you're not worried so much about pressing but just playing."
Miami is coming off wins at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the RedHawks defeated CHA champion Alabama-Huntsville in the first round (2-1), before winning a classic 3-2 double overtime affair against their CCHA rival Michigan, who had beaten Miami a week earlier en route to winning the CCHA tournament championship.
In the two games, four of the RedHawks' five goals came on the power play — a warmly welcomed sign for the only team in this year's Frozen Four not in the top 12 in the nation in power play efficiency.
Miami, with a conversion percentage of 18.3, ranks much lower, at No. 34.
"At this time of the year, you're playing high quality teams," said Blasi. "So if we can play even 5-on-5 and make it a special teams game, then we'll feel pretty good about that. It comes down to special teams no matter who you play, and everyone knows that."
The RedHawks' penalty killing units — the fifth-best statistical group in the country — have also been playing well heading into this week's Frozen Four. Miami was forced to kill off late-game pressurized man-advantage situations in their regional final game against Michigan, including one Wolverines opportunity in overtime.
But again, Miami has dealt with pressure all season — the pressure of a season-ending disappointment a year ago, of expectations for a veteran team, and of overcoming a team loss that was suffered far away from an ice rink.
"The pressure is relative," said Blasi, who offered a lighthearted moment this week when he admitted that he overcame his frustrations after last season by going shopping for a new wardrobe. "We just went out and played hard. We didn't focus on the NCAA championship, on what happened in the past. We were just 'in the moment.' We try and enjoy every moment we're together. With everything that happened to this team, and with Brendan, I think that's probably the biggest thing right now. We're just enjoying every minute that we're together.
"Whatever happens happens. We know we can play at a high level. We just have to go out and do it."
They'll have their chance Thursday in Detroit.
And how appropriate — for a team that has faced so much pressure all year — that they now head to the Frozen Four seemingly feeling none of it at all.