Miami coach Enrico Blasi grew up in Toronto. He went to college in Ohio and lives there today. He previously coached in Denver. But after the biggest win of his coaching career, in a Minnesota rink before a mostly-hostile crowd, Blasi said he felt right at home.
“Earlier in the week, my wife and I talked about going to Minneapolis and playing in the national tournament, and it’s been a bit of a homecoming for me and our program,” said Blasi, after the RedHawks earned their first-ever Frozen Four trip with a 2-1 win over Minnesota Duluth. This came one night after a Miami win over Blasi’s mentor (and former coach at Miami) George Gwozdecky’s Denver team. Blasi is now the head coach at Miami thanks to the vision of then-Miami athletic director and current University of Minnesota AD Joel Maturi.
“Obviously playing George last night – he meant so much to me and to the Miami hockey program. And Joel Maturi was – I call him a genius – but he was the man who took a chance on a young coach when everybody else thought he was crazy.”
Maturi beamed from the back of the room, as the guy he jokingly described as “an 18-year-old kid” at the time he was hired to run the Miami program, answered questions at the podium.
“There were other people that I interviewed with better credentials, but they either didn’t really want the job, or if they did, they viewed it as a stepping stone,” Maturi said. “Rico, being a grad, passionately wanted the job, and he’s proven to be a pretty good coach.”
Miami 2, Minnesota Duluth 1
|1-MIA||Justin Mercier (13)||SH|
|2-MIA||Justin Mercier (14)||PP|
|16:00||C. Wideman, C. Schilling|
|1-UMD||MacGregor Sharp (26)||EA|
|17:55||M. Connolly, E. Oberg|
|MIA: Cody Reinhard, 59:52, 25 saves, 1 GA|
|UMD: Alex Stalock, 56:42, 17 saves, 2 GA|
|Penalties: MIA 7/14; UMD 8/16|
|Power Plays: MIA 1-7; UMD 0-6|
That pretty good coach put together something akin to an abstract art masterpiece on Saturday – the kind of work that’s not for every taste, but is beautiful to those who know the territory. The RedHawks survived, then thrived, especially on special teams, out-hustling Minnesota Duluth in the win.
Justin Mercier, the regional tournament’s MVP, scored short-handed and power-play goals in the second period, and rock-solid play by freshman goalie Cody Reichard spurred the RedHawks to a 2-0 lead. And in the final minutes, when the Bulldogs seemed capable of pulling another miracle out, the team defense stiffened, allowing only a MacGregor Sharp goal and closing out the win.
“We had a pretty rough go the last three years, being knocked out by Boston College,” said Mercier, a senior from Erie, Pa. “When you think about your last game as a collegiate hockey player – as a senior, you never want to think about that last game. I think I can speak for a lot of the seniors that we didn’t want this to be it, and we were going to do everything we could to make sure it wasn’t.”
For Blasi, just having Mercier on the roster this season was a big accomplishment.
“Justin could’ve left us and signed an NHL contract and he decided to stay, because he believed in what we were doing and believed that we could make it to the Frozen Four,” Blasi said. “He had a tough year. He was a marked man in our league and everybody knew it. We had a talk early in the week and I told him nobody remembers the regular season at this point. Boy, did he ever come to play this weekend.”
Close, but no sequel, for Bulldogs
When Sharp scored with 2:05 on the clock, and the teams lined up for the next faceoff, there were few Bulldog fans sitting silently, despite their team’s desperate situation. Down 2-1, there were a fair number on the home bench and elsewhere in the rink fully expecting a repeat of Friday night’s heroics.
Asked if he thought his team was headed for a repeat of the last-minute come-from-behind versus Princeton, the Bulldogs coach didn’t hesitate to answer.
“You’re darn right,” said Scott Sandelin. “We certainly had some opportunities, we had the right players on the rink and we got a goal. You’ve got to go for it. There’s no tomorrow, so you’ve got to try and do what we tried to do – what we did last night. We got halfway there.”
The most painful part, for the Bulldogs, was the second period apparent power-play goal by Sharp that was disallowed after a review showed Justin Fontaine’s skate in the crease in front of Reichard.
“He said (Fontaine’s) foot was in the crease and he was impeding the vision of the goaltender,” said Sandelin. “Was his foot in? Yes. But they were battling for position. I can’t say what I really want to say.”
It was the first and only playoff loss for the Bulldogs this season, who finished seventh in the WCHA, but had upset Colorado College and won the WCHA Final Five. They finish the season 22-13-5.
Seen and Heard at Mariucci
• Apparently northern Minnesota pride trumps WCHA pride among Bulldog fans. That explains the cheers that erupted when Bemidji State’s lead, and North Dakota’s loss, were shown on the scoreboard.
• Blasi said playing in a hostile environment with a trip to the Frozen on the line was a particularly familiar feeling for his team. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “We’ve played out east against BC in their building with their fans, and tonight we had to come play Minnesota Duluth before all their fans. So it hasn’t been an easy road. But I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason and this is the way it’s supposed to be.”
• Interesting scene in the pressbox during the second intermission, as WCHA supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd huddled over a reporter’s laptop, watching a jumpy video feed of the Vermont-Air Force game, as two WCHA referees there – Marco Hunt and Todd Anderson – made the call that sent the Catamounts to the Frozen Four. Shepherd, naturally, said they got the call correct.
• Rumor has it that Minnesota Duluth alum Brett Hull and Gophers coach Don Lucia were in the building on Saturday. If so, both were laying low.
• If you can prove that your preseason Frozen Four picks included no WCHA teams, and only Miami representing the CCHA, please email your resume and two writing samples to the INCH World Headquarters immediately.
• Miami is the first team from Ohio in the Frozen Four since Ohio State made its only appearance in 1998. Bowling Green is the only Ohio team to win the NCAA title. The Falcons beat Minnesota Duluth in a multi-overtime affair in 1984. The now-defunct D-I programs at Findlay, Ohio University and Kent State never got there.
• Blasi smiled and said that former RedHawk Ryan Jones, now with the Predators, was calling the coach’s cell phone almost non-stop from the moment the game ended until they got to the postgame presser.
• One writer in the Mariucci pressbox joked that perhaps the WCHA would admit Bemidji State to the league first thing on Sunday morning, to give the league a chance to have a Frozen Four team after all.
PLUSSES AND MINUSES
Another good, if not great, crowd (7,554) was on hand for the final, with Bulldog fans the overwhelming majority. The student sections on the ends were sparsely populated, but between the goal lines, the rink didn’t have noticeably more empty seats than a normal regular season Minnesota game.
Lots of boos from the Bulldog partisans were heard, but referees Jeff Bunyon and Jim Benedetto made the right “no goal” call on MacGregor Sharp’s apparent power play marker in the second period. Justin Fontaine’s skate was in the crease and his position affected the play.
Nice work mining Wikipedia by the ESPN SportsCenter folks on Saturday, to note (while showing highlights of Friday night’s amazing comeback) that Minnesota Duluth is the alma mater of vacuum cleaner king David Oreck.
After saying all year that the WCHA as a whole was mediocre at best, we got some confirmation of that this weekend. The 2009 Frozen Four will be the first one without a WCHA team in a decade, and just the fourth time in history that the tournament has been WCHA-free. The Frozens in 1993, 1998 and 1999 were the others.
So much for what the hockey experts know. “Nobody, and I mean nobody, gave us a chance to be in the national tournament before the season, with four freshman defensemen and two freshman goalies,” said Blasi.
Editor’s Note: The INCH Preseason Power Rankings Great 58 had Miami ranked 14th – in the tournament field – but please disregard projections for BC, Michigan State, St. Cloud State and CC.
Miami needed more than 16 minutes to record its first shot on goal Saturday. It was the RedHawks only shot of the opening period. Sure, Stalock can be good. He’s even better when you give him one third of the game off. “One shot, but they only had six, so it’s not like they dominated us,” said Blasi.
INCH’s Three Stars of the Night
3. Miami’s special teams – They scored a power play goal, scored a shorthanded goal and kept the WCHA’s top power play off the board, killing a pair of 5-on-3 power plays in the second. That’s how you get to the Frozen.
2. Cody Reichard, Miami - The key for the rookie from Celina, Ohio, was refusing to panic, both in the opening period when the RedHawks had no offense, and in the final seconds, with the Bulldogs pressing for another miracle.
1. Justin Mercier, Miami – His aggressive play with the puck and good positioning led to both of the RedHawks goals, and earned him well-deserved regional MVP honors.
A week from Wednesday, expect to see a fair amount of red in eastbound cars along the 500-some miles of highway stretching between Oxford and our nation’s capital, as Miami makes its first Frozen Four trip.
“Like I told the guys in the locker room, I’m a little bit lost for words right now,” said Blasi. “It was a great game, a great effort and a great crowd. I think the fans were entertained with a pretty good hockey game tonight, and we’re pretty excited about going to the Frozen Four.”
For Minnesota Duluth, amid the pain of losing, there’s the satisfaction that the Bulldogs’ Broadmoor Trophy and Mariucci Miracle definitely made up for their slip in the final weeks of the regular season that dropped them into seventh place in the WCHA.
In the immediate future, they can look forward to the April groundbreaking for Duluth’s new arena, scheduled to open midway through the 2010-11 season.