By John Lachmann
After getting yanked midway through the second period last Saturday, goalie Ryan McKay fared a little better in Miami's NCAA Tournament opener.
The freshman stopped all 20 shots he faced in the RedHawks' 4-0 win over Minnesota State at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio, on Saturday.
"As a goalie, it doesn't matter what level you're playing, you have to have a quick memory," McKay said in the postgame press conference. "I forgot about that the instant that game was over Saturday at the Joe Louis, and I think our team did as well."
Miami's youth this season has been well documented, as the team has 12 freshmen and six sophomores, but it was the senior class that accounted for the first two RedHawks goals.
The Mavericks had better scoring chances in the first period and hit a post and a crossbar, but they were unable to put the puck in the net.
Miami senior forward Curtis McKenzie took a pass from sophomore forward Austin Czarnik on a 3-on-1, controlled it with his skate and roofed the backhander with 8:56 remaining in the second period.
RedHawks senior Marc Hagel extended the lead just 2:30 into the third period when he slammed home a pass from sophomore forward Blake Coleman at the side of the net. Coleman beat two defenders and his initial pass popped into the air and back on his stick before he was able to slide one through the top of the crease to Hagel.
Sophomore forward Cody Murphy made it 3-0 with 10:36 left in regulation when he followed up his own shot.
After Murphy's initial shot was denied by a flash of freshman goalie Stephon Williams' right pad, another attempt by junior forward Max Cook was saved and Murphy was denied again on a backhander before floating the puck over sprawling freshman goalie Stephon Williams.
Cook sealed the game with an empty netter with 58 seconds remaining.
Murphy and Cook finished with a goal and an assist each, and Coleman and Czarnik both recorded a pair of helpers in the win.
Minnesota State entered Saturday with an NCAA-best 44 power play goals, but Miami held the Mavericks to just two shots in four man advantages. The RedHawks blocked 29 shots in the game, with freshman defenseman Matthew Caito and senior defenseman Garrett Kennedy recording five blocks each.
It was the first shutout for McKay since Feb. 9 at Western Michigan, and the fourth of his career.
Unfortunately for the RedHawks, sophomore forward Jimmy Mullin injured his right knee in the first period and did not return. He was helped to the locker room and was unable to put weight on that leg and sat in the stands later in the game.
The official word from The Brotherhood, Miami hockey's Twitter page, is that he will be evaluated on Sunday.
This is the first NCAA Tournament win for Miami since 2010, when the RedHawks went to the Frozen Four before being beaten by Boston College at Ford Field in Detroit.
Miami advances to the regional championship game, which will be played against St. Cloud State at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
ANALYSIS: McKay will get all the credit for the shutout in most media outlets, but the key reason for the lopsided victory was the play of his defense in front of him.
After playing their worst game of the season by far in the 6-2 loss to Michigan last week, the defense corps – and the forwards as well – completely stymied the Minnesota State offense the final 40 minutes.
Senior captain Steven Spinell has played one of his best games of the season after struggling at times the past few weeks. That was also one of Kennedy's best games of the season, and senior defenseman Joe Hartman was also very solid in his own end.
Forwards Hagel, Murphy, McKenzie and freshman Kevin Morris were especially solid defensively as well.
Not to take anything away from McKay. He and the team can say whatever they want about putting last week behind them, but even a walking goaltending textbook like McKay had to feel better after seeing some rubber.
The first period the team played OK, but the second and third periods were outstanding in all three ends by all 18 skaters and McKay.
He didn't get a point, but it bears mentioning that freshman Sean Kuraly continues to impress on a shift-by-shift basis with his power forward play that was not there consistently the first four months of the season.
And in case anyone with the coaching staff reads this (no, coaches don't care what the media says, right?) coach Enrico Blasi did a fantastic job with the lines, especially after Mullin's injury. It seemed like Hagel was on the ice for half of the final two periods to fill the absence.
Putting McKenzie back with Czarnik and freshman Riley Barber paid off in the second period, and sophomore Alex
Wideman – who was on that top line – seemed to perform better with Kuraly and Hagel, although the lines were tweaked in-game more than usual for obvious reasons.
In the things the team can't control department, not much more could've gone right in other games for Miami. Notre Dame, the top seed in the Toledo Regional, lost, so the RedHawks need to be a four seed for a chance to return to the Frozen Four.
And the game is in Miami's home state, as opposed to the 800-plus miles St. Cloud State fans would have to travel. Sunday's crowd should definitely by pro-RedHawks.
There might as well be runway lights on I-70 to Pittsburgh, but if Saturday proved anything, it's that anyone can beat anyone in this tournament.
On a sad note: Mullin's hit didn't look good. We absolutely wish for the best for him – he's a delight to watch with his speed, and his energy is contagious – and hopefully his injury is minor.
FORWARDS: A. A little slow getting started – actually everyone on the team was – but they made up for it in the last 30 minutes.
McKenzie's goal was beautiful (and the stream of conscious thought on this end was, ‘$#&*@!!-one-too-many-passes-yes!!!') and tilted the ice in Miami's favor. It was as if Minnesota State was confident it could play with the RedHawks until that goal, and Miami seized the momentum and the Mavericks were unable to generate any offensive chances after that.
Coleman did the heavy lifting on the Hagel goal, but Hagel was in perfect position to receive that pass and he absolutely did not miss. Williams still had the net defended well but Hagel's shot beat him.
As for Murphy: If you don't enjoy watching this kid play, you're not a Miami fan. He fired one of his trademark deceptive shots on net that created the rebound and then put another rebound shots on net before scoring. So he had three shots on goal in the span of about six seconds.
And on the ENG: Cook did not have a goal the first 27 games of the RedHawks' season, and he played in 19 of them. He now has four in his last 14.
More ice time with solid offensive linemates has helped, but except for Kuraly few Miami players have stepped up more the last leg of this season.
DEFENSEMEN: A. Obviously upset with the ‘F' they received last week vs. Michigan, their first failing grade of the season, this corps was exceptional.
Pretty much everything was covered above, but as a unit they blocked 17 shots (Kennedy 5, Caito 5, Spinell 3, Richart 2, Hartman 1, Joyaux 1).
Minnesota State's reputed power play did zip against Miami's penalty killers, led by the defensemen.
GOALTENDING: A+. Yes, he gets the plus. It was McKay's first NCAA Tournament game and coming off a game in which he was yanked after 30 minutes and four goals allowed.
In fairness, McKay had little chance on the four goals he surrendered, but it's still tough to bounce back from something like that and he was exceptional.
The goals-against average drops to 1.30 and his save percentage surges to .950. What a year.
LINEUP CHANGES: Freshman forward John Doherty was in the lineup in place of freshman Alex Gacek, which was a bit of surprise. Gacek had played in 36 of the first 40 games including the last 25, which this was just the fourth time this season Doherty dressed.
Gacek hasn't scored since Dec. 15 and has just four assists in that span, and the back-to-back weekends Miami was scored on shorthanded because of an error he made on the power play.
Like we said last week, Gacek has tons of talent but has seemed out of place in that role. His future at Miami is still bright, especially with that blazing speed of his, but sometimes smaller guys wear down over the course of a long season.
With Mullin likely out, Gacek may return on Sunday, or Blasi could come back with junior Bryon Paulazzo, who is a very solid option.
Doherty has played fairly well each game he's dressed this season, so maybe Blasi sticks with him since the coach said he was very impressed with him in practice this week.