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Stealing Miami’s thunder

Leave it to the Big Ten to steal the attention away from the Miami RedHawks and their first CCHA playoff championship. Well, I’m not going to talk about that today. That can wait until midweek.

There’s hockey being played now. There was hockey in Detroit just two days ago. There are four CCHA teams in the NCAA tournament.

The Big Ten can wait.

They need to send the Spartans a muffin basket

I knew heading into Detroit that Miami would win, but I wasn’t sure why. I mean, I knew that the RedHawks had solidified every aspect of their game, that they had added amazing team defense to a powerful offense. I knew that they’d allowed just five goals in five games – while scoring 23 – but I wasn’t sure how it had all come together.

And then I remembered Miami’s 7-4 loss to Michigan State Jan. 21. And then head coach Enrico Blasi and several players mentioned “the loss to Michigan State” as a pivotal point in the team’s season.

And then I remembered what Blasi said post-game Jan. 21, to me directly, the only reporter to ask him anything outside the visitor’s locker room in Munn Ice Arena.

Me: What was the difference in tonight’s game?

Blasi: They scored seven, we scored four.

Me: And the reason for switching goalies?

Blasi: At that point, they scored four, we only scored two.

Me: And – other than not allowing more goals than you score tomorrow – what does your team need to do tomorrow night?

Blasi: We’ve got to play a lot better defense than we did tonight. They outworked us to pucks tonight, got their chances, and scored – and we didn’t.

And that was the entirety of that interview. What’s impossible to convey is the tone.

Until midseason, Miami was consistently good with the puck. The RedHawks’ junior goaltenders, Connor Knapp and Cody Reichard, didn’t have numbers to match those of their first two seasons, but those statistics only told a partial story. What Miami needed to do was play better – and smarter – without the puck, play better team defense.

That is exactly what the RedHawks did in the closing weeks of the CCHA season and in the tournament last weekend. Miami was the complete package, and when Western Michigan tied up the title game, 2-2, early in the third period, the RedHawks did what every good team does: they elevated their play and their big players made sure that the Broncos couldn’t do the same. It’s no accident that Andy Miele scored the game-winning goal less than five minutes after Dane Walters netted perhaps the biggest goal of his career for the Broncos.

The RedHawks are also very, very loose – as in, relaxed – a good thing for a team playing great hockey come NCAA tournament time. After Friday’s 6-2 win over Notre Dame, reporters asked sophomore Reilly Smith about setting up Miele for two goals. For the record, Miele leads the nation with 71 total points but trails Smith (28-26-54) by four goals.

“He’s always giving me open nets,” said Smith, “so finally I got to give back to him. Whatever helps our team, you know?”

Miele responded with, “I liked it.”

Then Miele was asked about a goal he scored crashing the net and crashing to the ice, having lost his footing in the slot.

“That’s just one of those lucky goals,” said Miele. “I just wanted to get the puck on net like it did. It went under his [ND goaltender Mike Johnson’s] arm and we were happy for it.”

“It was the pass,” said Smith, immediately and definitively.

In their two games, Miami outscored the Fighting Irish and the Broncos 11-4. Now, the Irish looked off their game, but the Broncos were not; they were just beaten by the better team that night.

I was thinking of Steve Cady

Saturday night, I was happiest for Steve Cady, the great man who began the Miami hockey program.

I was thinking of Dan Boyle and Andy Greene – and his mother, Lynda, and she knows why – and Ryan Jones and a host of other players whom no one outside of Miami hockey circles has ever heard of, like Ernie Hartlieb (1997-2000), the forward from Warren, Mich., whose hockey career almost didn’t happen because of a serious head injury the summer before his freshman year. Hartlieb just retired from professional hockey last October.

I thought of Charlie Effinger (2004-08), the goaltender from Belleville, Ill., who always “played like a rock star” against Ohio State, as someone close to the Buckeye program lamented when he was in net against OSU.

I thought of Jake Ortmeyer (1998-2002), Nino Musitelli (2004-08 – that kid is funny), and Barry Schutte (1993-97) and Chris Bergeron (1990-93), now coaching together at Bowling Green, and a lot of other Miami alumni.

I started covering CCHA hockey in 1995-96 when I lived in Columbus, Ohio. A little newspaper in Michigan needed a reporter to cover the three Ohio CCHA teams, and I became a semi-regular in Goggin. A year later, I started writing for USCHO a month after its inception and I still went to Goggin often because of the geography of the CCHA.

I thought of Andy Geshan, the team’s equipment manager and Mike Harris, who worked closely with hockey in the athletic department there forever and who’s now a senior associate director of athletics at Towson University.

And as I watched Miami and Western play for the Mason Cup, I thought of how important it was for teams not in East Lansing and Ann Arbor to do so.

Playing against type

The RedHawks flew out to a 4-0 lead after one in Friday’s semifinal game against the Irish, prompting at least a couple of reporters in the press box to remark that Notre Dame could never overcome such a lead because they “aren’t an offensive team.”

Really?

While it was clear that ND wasn’t going to come back, it wasn’t because the Irish aren’t offensive-minded. Notre Dame entered the weekend averaging 3.54 goals per game, the tenth most-productive offense in the country. True, the Irish scored two goals per game this weekend to drop their average to 3.46 GPG, but they’re still tenth in that category.

The only team in the league that scores more goals per game than Notre Dame is Miami.

Strangely, the Irish are considered a defensive team, yet ND entered the weekend with the nation’s No. 22 defense and left Detroit at No. 25, allowing 2.76 goals per game. In this case, statistics don’t lie; the Irish need to play better without the puck.

Irish head coach Jeff Jackson has talked in recent weeks about the youth of his team and how tightly wound the whole squad is. When asked if that was what happened in the first period Friday, when ND allowed four goals, he said, “It’s hard to tell. I think a lot of it had to do with Miami.”

Both Jackson and freshman T.J. Tynan (who is small, with red hair and a baby face) said that turnovers were key to both Notre Dame losses at JLA.

“[Miami] put a lot of pressure on us,” said Jackson. “Their skill and speed forced us to turn a lot of pucks over and you can’t do that against a team like that because they transition so well offensively and they have so many great weapons. It was a lot about them, in my opinion.”

After Friday’s 4-2 loss to Michigan in the third-place game, Tynan said, “I think the first game we were a little nervous in the first period but I think tonight we weren’t as nervous. Couple of turnovers cost us some goals, including my turnovers, so, uh, eh.”

If you can imagine a shrug, that’s the tone of the last two syllables.

And the reason why the press hasn’t quoted Tynan his classmate Anders Lee – both of whom have 22 goals on the season – or any of the other 10 freshman who have seen at least a minute of game time this season is because Jackson wouldn’t let us. Wise, I think. Now, of course, the press can’t get enough of these kids.

Disappointment is relative

Both of Friday’s games were disappointing. As I said in my blog Saturday, I was really excited about this field and the possibility of four terrific, close, hotly contested hockey games.

What I got instead were two semifinal blowouts, a pretty good third-place game, and a an exciting title match.

The other blowout on Friday, of course, was Western Michigan’s 5-2 win over Michigan, a game in which the Broncos exploded for four second-period goals. As a game goes, blowouts are boring. As the match went – with half the arena occupied by Western Michigan fans and an underdog dominating a perennial favorite – it was hockey magic.

“We’re certainly excited with the outcome,” said WMU head coach Jeff Blashill. “We knew that Michigan was a great hockey team. Our focus was on us playing our best hockey and I think our guys played pretty close to what we would call an elite game. They stuck to Bronco hockey. They hunted a lot of pucks, came up with turnovers and were able to be strong around their nets.”

What impressed me the most about the Broncos after that win was how composed they were. They were happy, certainly, but a bit reserved; they had more work to do. Like the RedHawks, they were relaxed but they were also very focused. They were well prepared by their coaching staff, which also includes Rob Facca – the man with the most interesting shoes in the league – and Pat Ferschweiler.

And if you want a study in intensity, check out Broncos’ senior goaltender Jerry Kuhn, perhaps one of the most intense hockey players I’ve ever met. He played a fierce game against Miami Saturday, coming out of the net often to challenge the RedHawks’ scorers – and that sometimes cost him – but it did take extra skaters to beat him four times, including Bryon Paulazzo’s first goal for Miami, which was scored the second a WMU penalty kill ended.

Those Wolverines

Just as I admire Kuhn for his intensity, I love watching Michigan’s Shawn Hunwick play in net for his animation and passion. (That his personality is clear both on and off the ice is a bonus – he’s fun to talk to.)

In Friday’s game, though, Hunwick was clearly rattled by Western Michigan’s aggressive play in front of the net. After Matt Tennyson made it a 3-0 game at 13:53 in the second – the goal that held up to be the game-winner – Hunwick was so frustrated that he pushed the net off its moorings. Hunwick was the goalie of record for all five WMU goals; Bryan Hogan played well in relief in the third period.

After the game, Broncos’ senior Max Campbell said that getting to Hunwick was part of WMU’s game plan (even though he mistakenly said “Hogan” in a video interview). That the Broncos suspected that they could exploit Hunwick’s passion is very interesting.

That Hunwick came back with a 42-save performance in Saturday’s 4-2 win over Notre Dame was equally interesting.

“Any time you give up five goals in a game and get pulled after the second, you should be pretty motivated to come back the next day,” said Hunwick. “I lost my composure a little bit [Friday]. I was frustrated by how things were going. I wasn’t really mad at anybody but myself, and I probably took it out in the worst way possible.

“That’s the good thing about hockey. You’ve got another game ahead of you.”

And there’s at least one game ahead next weekend for each of these teams

I’ll blog midweek about the tournament, too, and we’ll have regional previews just as we do every year.

Candace Horgan and I are covering the West Regional in St. Louis and I can’t believe my luck. It isn’t often that we western reporters get a chance to cover Boston College in regional action.

And the Mavs!