By John Lachmann
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Entering its second-last weekend of the regular season, the chance of No. 15 Miami earning a top four seed in the CCHA tournament was pretty bleak.
The RedHawks almost certainly had to win out and still needed help from teams above them to secure one of those spots, which comes with a first-round bye and the opportunity to host a best-of-3 conference quarterfinal series.
But Miami (21-13-2) completed that task on Saturday with a 5-1 win at Value City Arena that extended the RedHawks' winning streak to six games and gave them the fourth seed in the conference playoffs.
After a bye next weekend Miami will host fifth-seeded Michigan State on March 9-11. Those teams could have met in East Lansing that weekend had the Spartans not lost to Notre Dame on Friday.
The RedHawks wrapped up their conference schedule with a home sweep of Notre Dame and wins in both ends of a home-and-home series vs. Ohio State (15-13-5). Miami outscored those opponents, 15-2, with both goals against coming on 5-on-3s.
Just 43 seconds into the game, Miami freshman forward Jimmy Mullin took a pass from fellow frosh forward Austin Czarnik, cut to the net and slipped a puck past Ohio State goalie Cal Heeter.
The Buckeyes' Al McLean tied the score momentarily midway through the first period with a 5-on-3 blue line blast that beat Miami senior goalie Connor Knapp on the glove side.
But the RedHawks regained the lead when freshman forward Blake Coleman tipped home a shot from the point by senior defenseman Cameron Schilling with 4:26 left in the opening frame.
Miami junior forward Reilly Smith corralled a loose puck after a shot by RedHawks senior defenseman Will Weber was blocked and beat Heeter to make it 3-1 just 35 seconds later.
Coleman nearly scored again in the final minute of the period when his slap shot from the blue line hit the inside of the post and kicked back in front of Heeter.
Coleman was also denied on a penalty shot early in the second period.
A drop pass by Mullin at the side of the net was slammed home by Czarnik nearly halfway through the middle stanza, making it 4-1 and breaking a 16-game scoring drought from Czarnik.
His slump broken, Czarnik went in alone on Heeter after a pass by Smith through the middle of the ice spring him loose. He went to his backhand and scored in highlight-reel fashion shorthanded to extend Miami's lead to four less than two minutes later, chasing Heeter.
Miami then went into defensive mode, holding Ohio State to just nine shots on goal over the final 30 minutes.
Knapp robbed the Buckeyes' Justin DaSilva, whose initial shot was stopped by Knapp and came loose in the crease, but Knapp flashed the glove on the second shot.
RedHawks senior forward Matt Tomassoni also made a key defensive stop, shutting down a 4-on-1 for Ohio State by sprawling on the ice the break up a pass, which hit Tomassoni and slid innocuously wide of the Miami net.
The JAR line (Jimmy, Austin and Reilly) accounted for four goals and six assists. Smith led the way with four points (1-3-4), while Czarnik (2-1-3) and Mullin (1-2-3) both added three points.
Those single-game point totals equaled season highs for Czarnik and Smith, and three points set a career mark for Mullin.
That line finished with weekend with 15 points, scoring six of Miami's eight goals (Coleman had the other two).
Knapp's ridiculous second half continued, as he stopped 22 shots to earn his fifth straight win. He is 10-2 with a 0.95 goals-against average and a .961 save percentage since the start of 2012.
During his current winning streak, his numbers are even better. Knapp's GAA is 0.60 and his save percentage is .976 in that span, with two of his three goals allowed coming on 5-on-3 situations.
Miami finished the regular season with 48 points, one ahead of fifth-place Michigan State (although the RedHawks held the tiebreaker against the Spartans) and two behind third-place Western Michigan.
Miami is currently eighth in the PairWise rankings, the main system used for determining NCAA Tournament automatics bids and seeding.
The RedHawks will open their CCHA second-round series vs. Michigan State on March 9 at Cady Arena.
ANALYSIS: Miami likes to do things the hard way sometimes, and the team's first 30 games were certainly a tribute to that.
But anyone who follows hockey at any level knows that peaking at the right time is the most important thing for a team's postseason success, and six straight wins definitely shows that Miami is serious about playing well into March.
It was senior night in Columbus, and after getting it handed to them on Friday, the Buckeyes had every reason to come out in force on Saturday. But Miami showed who was in charge from shift one, scoring less than a minute in.
Even after giving Ohio State an extensive 5-on-3 after a pair of laughable calls that ultimately led to the Buckeyes tying the score, Miami came right back with two more goals of its own minutes later.
Winning six straight games in college hockey is very difficult
even if a team is playing well. Bad bounces, hot goalies and poor officiating can conspire against even the streakiest of teams, so what Miami has done the past three weeks is quite impressive.
And as nice as the offensive rejuvenation has been, having a goalie playing at Knapp's level is even more important. In 10 of his last 12 starts since the start of January, Knapp has gone binary – allowing goal totals of zero or one.
It's tough for opponents to win when they score one goal or less over 80 percent of the time.
Ohio State had no answer for the JAR line, and it was great to see those players put up strong numbers on the weekend. Czarnik didn't look quite the same after coming back from World Juniors and Mullin missed 2½ games after getting illegally kneed in Michigan, but Smith has been on fire the entire time and this weekend those three played great together.
Smith was too skilled and Czarnik and Mullin were too fast for the young Ohio State defense to stop. The Buckeyes had no answer for that line all weekend.
This win helps MU in multiple ways. First, Miami has a route to the CCHA championship weekend in its own building. The RedHawks can advance to Detroit without leaving Oxford, quite an opportunity considering two weeks ago the possibility existed that Miami could've had to win two road series to accomplish that feat.
Second, and hopefully no one on the team reads this, the RedHawks probably clinched a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Not only did the win over Ohio State help, but now in a worst-cast scenario – getting swept by Michigan State – the RedHawks are probably still in the top 15 in the PairWise (one automatic bid will come from a team not in the top 16).
Michigan State is tied for 11th in the PairWise.
Also, this weekend pretty much proved that the two-referee system in its current form does not work in the CCHA. Especially when those refs are Kevin Hall and Mark Wilkins.
If any Ohio State fans are reading, this is not at all intended to rub ice on the wound, because they blew calls both ways, and the linesmen have apparently forgotten what constitutes off-sides and icing.
The more skilled team should generally have the most power play chances, since theoretically the less skilled team will need to hold, hook, etc., to prevent scoring chances.
Again, not slighting Ohio State – the Buckeyes are very young and have plenty of talent -- but this weekend they looked worn down late in both games and couldn't compete with Miami's ample offensive weapons.
The power play chances? 11-5 in favor of OSU including a pair of two-man advantages on Saturday.
Granted one 5x3 was the result of a too many men call against Miami, which the RedHawks deserved, but come on. What little pushing and shoving occurred after the whistle was mutual, and what constituted interference has been let go all season.
If referees want to make a statement about certain behaviors, do that in October, not the last game of the regular season with teams' playoff seeds on the line.
Finally, without Tomassoni's play on the 4-on-1 Ohio State almost certainly scores and the outcome could've been completely different. Miami fans will miss him more than they realize after he graduates.
FORWARDS: A. As documented, the JAR line was unstoppable (in addition to their 10 points, they finished plus-11), netting four of Miami's five goals. And Coleman had several great chances, scoring on one.
The forwards accounted for all five goals, seven of the nine assists and 26 shots.
Freshman Cody Murphy continued to provide energy on the fourth line, as he fired five shots on goal. Coleman led the team with six SOG, and Czarnik added five.
DEFENSEMEN: A. Miami has pretty much taken a stay-at-home attitude on defense, but it was nice to see two RedHawks goals scored as a result of blueliner blasts (Schilling and Weber).
They recorded two assists (by the aforementioned members of the D corps) and took seven shots total while holding Ohio State to 23 SOG.
Other than leaving a Buckeye wide open in front of the net on the power play in the first period and the 4-on-1 that Tomassoni broke up there were almost no defensive breakdowns.
One area of concern -- and this was more of an issue on Friday -- but junior Garrett Kennedy was left alone to face odd-man chances at least three times over the weekend.
It's unclear if a forward was supposed to skate back to pick up junior Stephen Spinell -- Kennedy's defensive partner -- but there was clearly some miscommunication there and fortunately Kennedy broke up a pair of 2-on-1s on Friday.
Against a more offensively-potent team those rushes could've resulted in goals.
GOALTENDING: A. How many more ways can it be said that Knapp was spectacular? It almost takes away from the meaning by constantly heaping praise on him, but without him, Miami would be preparing for a road series next weekend.
He made one excellent save, and while it's easy to downplay his performance because he didn't have to stand on his head, his positioning and controlling
his rebounds are reasons he didn't have to make multiple spectacular saves.
His defense playing well and Tomassoni's sprawl (yes, it's being mentioned again – it was that good of a play that it warrants it) certainly helped.
The goaltending duo in Oxford has been commonly referred to as "Cody and Connor". Hopefully no one will forget how great Reichard's stellar career record, but if Knapp sustains this level of play in the postseason those names might be reversed.
LINEUP CHANGES: For the third time in four games, freshman forward Alex Wideman was scratched.
In his place was sophomore Bryon Paulazzo, who was a surprise scratch on Friday.
It bears repeating once in a while that I'm not going to pretend I know what happens in every practice, the injury status on every player and all off-ice factors, so my evaluation of players is based on on-ice performance and the team intel I'm able to gather.
Coach Enrico Blasi is one of the best coaches in college hockey and he has very difficult choices to make regarding his lineup on a nightly basis. So this segment isn't really about second guessing a well-respected Division I coach as it is about looking at the lineups from a non-insider perspective.
That said, it bears repeating: Those two should be in the lineup on a nightly basis.
One more thought on forwards: The second line of freshman Tyler Biggs with junior Curtis McKenzie and senior Trent Vogelhuber isn't working. Putting Biggs with Coleman and Paulazzo might better utilize Biggs' talent, moving senior Alden Hirschfeld to the McKenzie-Vogelhuber line.
Vogelhuber's a good defensive forward but Biggs is way too good to play with linemates who have a total of seven goals and 18 assists between them this season.
On defense, Kennedy played in place of freshman Ben Paulides for the second straight night. Kennedy has played well in the sixth defense spot, but Paulides was thriving in that role as well.
It was somewhat surprising that Paulides was benched this weekend after 16 straight starts, but Blasi obviously feels Kennedy is better in his own end at this point, and he has more experience.
Knapp has started four straight games in net and should get the call for each game in the Michigan State series, although Blasi will probably go with Reichard if Knapp happens to struggle in Game 1.
-- Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org