Miami Hasn't Loss Since Mid-Season Benchings
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
MANCHESTER, N.H. Miami’s 2010-11 season began as the previous few did.
Fans had expectations for the program.
The players had more. After advancing to consecutive Frozen Fours without bringing a trophy to Oxford, Ohio, the RedHawks, led by an accomplished group of seniors, knew 2010-11 had the potential to be the season they capped the building process coach Enrico Blasi began when he took over at his alma mater in 1999. While winning the program’s first Mason Cup last weekend was huge, a national championship ranks as the ultimate prize.
“We felt all year that we had a pretty good team that, if challenged, would rise to the occasion and play pretty well,” Blasi said. “We had a team that we thought could beat anyone the country. Unfortunately, sometimes, when you have a veteran team, you have to find new ways to challenge and motivate them.”
Midway through the season, Blasi’s club maintained a 13-8-3 record as it left for East Lansing, Mich., and a weekend pair with CCHA rival Michigan State.
At this point, the RedHawks resembled the efficient, productive group that fell just short of a national championships at times. About half the time, though, they looked like something else, like a group satisfied by its previous success and convinced a third consecutive Frozen Four trip was a guarantee.
That first night in East Lansing, the complacent group took the ice. Michigan State skated all over Miami in piecing together a 7-4 win over the RedHawks and dropping Miami a little too close to the .500 mark for Blasi’s comfort. With more than three months left in the season, some coaches may have delayed any drastic changes to get a lift from his team.
To build a program capable of competing for Mason Cups and national championships on a yearly basis, Blasi knows he can’t behave like most coaches, though. After some discussions with his coaching staff and consulting his captains, Blasi decided to enact the most severe measure a coach can take. Rather than shifting his lines or starting a different goaltender, Blasi submitted his lineup card with three empty slots.
“We always had the sense that were were just waiting for something to pull the team together,” Blasi said. “Somebody mentioned the January 21-22 weekend at Michigan State, that was a tough weekend for everybody. Not only did we lose a game on Friday night, pretty handily to Michigan State, the coaching staff made a decision, with the blessing of the captains, to sit out four regulars and play only 15 players.”
Blasi and his staff benched sophomore Curtis McKenzie, junior Alden Hirschfield, sophomore Garrett Kennedy and junior Cameron Schilling and shifted versatile junior Matt Tomassoni from the right wing to the blue line. The move said everything Blasi wanted to.
If you play without effort and direction, you won’t be in he lineup for very long. Even if it means Miami skating with only three lines or forcing a player or two out of position, Blasi won’t allow someone not committed to his program to wear its uniform. As the intentionally shorthanded RedHawks took the ice that night, Blasi saw the mindset he needed. The commitment to defense appeared. The team first mentality required to operate Blasi’s Brotherhood returned, as the RedHawks dominated the Spartans in a 4-0 win. Even with three fewer players in uniform, Miami outshot MSU, 47-26, and converted three of seven power plays. Even the penalty kill pieced together a strong effort, neutralizing all six Spartan man advantages.
With the loss the night before, Miami fell to 13-9-3 on the season. Blasi’s decision halted a 2-4-0 stretch and promptly began an unbeaten streak that still hasn’t ended. Since that night, Miami is 11-0-2 in its last 13 games, including four wins in the CCHA Tournament, outscoring its opponents, 19-6.
“[The decision to dress 15 skaters] could have gone either way. It could’ve helped us or really hurt us and spiraled down into a bad situation. These three guys stepped up, and we were able to win that game with 15 skaters on the road,” Blasi said, pointing to seniors Andy Miele, Carter Camper and Pat Cannone. “Since then, the focus has been there, the purpose has been there, and it just started as a snowball and continued to move forward in a positive way.”
Eventually, Blasi decided to dress his usual four lines, but his players absorbed his message without question. It’s the same message that lured them to Miami in the first place, and it’s guided them to within two wins of a third straight Frozen Four.
“We’re playing 60-minute games now,” Miele said. “We’re not taking periods off. We have everyone going, from the goaltenders to the defense up to the forwards and the freshman all the way up to the seniors. Everyone is on the same page, and we’re playing with confidence.”
Blasi was confident in his team all along. Now that he sees the effort and determination he wanted in the first place, he’s fully confident his team will advance to St. Paul. New Hampshire and either Merrimack or Notre Dame stand in his way right now, but the RedHawks haven’t lost in more than two months. Based on their compete-level since that night in East Lansing, it doesn't look like they're about to start now.