Miami falls in NCAA regional final

St. Cloud too much for RedHawks

By John Lachmann

   TOLEDO, Ohio – In an NCAA Tournament overrun with upsets, Miami was the latest high-seed casualty.

   St. Cloud State, the lowest-seeded in the Midwest Regional, beat the RedHawks, 4-1 in a regional championship at the Huntington Center on Sunday.

   "This isn't the end of world," Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. "These 18 freshmen and sophomores…the senior class did an unbelievable job. We won a (CCHA) championship."

   Miami netted its goal on the power play but was outscored, 4-0 at even-strength.

   Sophomore forward Blake Coleman scored the lone RedHawks' goal in the second period.

   A wrister by Joey Benik from just inside the blue line beat McKay on the stick side just 5:28 into the first period.

   Miami fell behind, 2-0 with 14:24 left in the second period when Benik tapped the rebound into an empty net after McKay made the save on a point-blank shot by Brooks Bertsch.

   Miami pulled to within one just over two minutes later when Coleman roofed one after a shot by senior defenseman Steven Spinell went wide and hit the end boards, caroming to Coleman at the side of the net.

   But SCSU's Cory Thorson answered minutes later when he fired a shot that hit a stick and found the short side of the net with 9:48 left in the middle stanza.

   "When you get that close and then all in the sudden they come back and score a goal, that's hard to accept, right?" Blasi said. "I thought our guys battled hard, I didn't think they gave up, we just couldn't find a way to penetrate their D, and (SCSU) just did a great job."

   An empty netter by Thorson in the final second wrapped up the scoring.

   Miami fell short of its third-ever Frozen Four berth but its win over Minnesota State on Saturday was its first in the NCAA Tournament in three years.

   ANALYSIS: Miami played well in spurts, but St. Cloud State was the better team for much of the game.

   It was a fitting ending for a RedHawks team that was maddeningly inconsistent the last month, playing extremely well and extremely flat often in the same weekend.

   Miami had great scoring chances in the first period, especially after allowing the first goal, but freshman defenseman Matthew Caito hit a post and freshman forward Sean Kuraly followed up seconds later by ringing the crossbar.

   After cutting the lead to one, 2-1, the third Huskies goal seemed to totally deflate Miami.

   As frustrating as the ending was – mostly because of SCSU was a four seed and the path through Pittsburgh was very favorable, and also because of this team's potential – like Blasi said, finishing the season as a national quarterfinalist should be considered a success.

   With 12 freshman and six more sophomores on the roster, Miami was one of the last eight teams standing in college hockey, extending its NCAA Tournament streak to eight years. That's the second-longest streak in the country only to North Dakota.

   The whole cliché about reloading vs. rebuilding has never rang truer with this program, which lost 10 seniors after last season plus its top goal scorer who went pro after his junior year and a first-round draft pick who went to major juniors after his freshman season.

   Even Boston College can't claim it has qualified for eight straight national tournaments in a college hockey world that has more and more parity every season.

   Which is another thing Miami can feel good about. Losing to a four seed in a single elimination tournament in an era in which there is little difference talentwise between No. 5 and No. 11 is no crime – Yale also advanced to the Frozen Four as a four seed this season.

   Here's more of Blasi's comment of the subject:

   "There's some people in this room that didn't give us a chance ever, any weekend, and we won a CCHA championship, which is hard to win, we got to a regional final, which is not easy to do, and we lost to a great St. Cloud team," Blasi said.

   A little context: CCHA blogger Paula Weston picked Miami to lose in the first round of the CCHA Tournament (which was correct) and also had the RedHawks losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

   She also picked Notre Dame to win the NCAA championship, and the Irish lost to St. Cloud, 5-1 in the first round.

   This isn't anything new: Weston almost never picks schools other than Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame to win anything, so Blasi calling her out for it when she's basically a lame duck was amusing.

   After Blasi left the press conference Weston told anyone that would listen in the room that it was her Blasi was referring to.

   Losing three veteran defensemen in seniors Joe Hartman, Steven Spinell and Garrett Kennedy will be tough, especially the size of the former two. Hartman and Kennedy played the best hockey of their careers down the stretch.

   Senior forward Marc Hagel was an incredible veteran addition to the team, and an informal captain coming onto a team that had lost almost every one of its penalty killing forwards.

   And Curtis McKenzie finally had the season fans knew he had in him, and he should have a long professional career ahead of him.

   Thanks, seniors, for four great and memorable years.

   This will be remembered as the team that played in Miami's first outdoor game. It was the team that won the final CCHA regular season championship. It was the team that said farewell to several conference opponents it has faced annually for decades.

   And despite its youth, it was a team that set a pretty high bar for next season. Its potential seems unlimited the next few seasons, with the duo of sophomore Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber ready to challenge for the NCHC's first scoring championship.

   Not to mention the other sophomore talent up front, like Coleman, who played some of his best hockey in the most important games down the stretch. Cody Murphy, who plays every shift like it's his last and this season turned into a serious scoring threat, thanks to a howitzer of a shot.

   Jimmy Mullin, who has a incredible blend of speed and stickhandling, and though he had his season cut short his best days of college hockey are still ahead of him. Alex Wideman who seemed like he either scored the winning goal or found the net in the shootout every night for about a month earlier in the season.

   The other freshmen forwards like Kevin Morris, who didn't seem to turn the puck over all season, became an instant leader on a team in need of one and did the dirty work on the penalty kill that is too often underappreciated. Sean Kuraly who became a beast the last month of the season, scoring clutch goals while finally figuring out how best to utilize his size to drive the net. And Alex Gacek, who can absolutely fly and is just starting to tap his potential.

   Max Cook could be the only starting senior next season, and no one on the team seemed to gain more confidence from Game 1 to Game 42 this season.

   And there's the freshmen defense, which is that in name only.

   Especially Caito, already a leader on the ice, he has the hands and the skating ability to play forward but the smarts and the toughness to excel on the blue line.

   Chris Joyaux and Taylor Richart were put in a tough spot in front of two young goalies, and their job was not to be noticed as stay-at-home defenseman, and fortunately their names weren't called very often.

   Of course goalies Ryan McKay and Jay Williams.

   His last game wasn't memorable, but McKay's season will be remembered for a long time. He absolutely shattered Jeff Zatkoff's single-season goals-against and save percentage records. As a student of the game and with his textbook mechanics he should bounce back as strong as ever next season.

   When McKay was injured in late October, the season could have unraveled for Miami. But Williams didn't let that happen.

   It was several months ago, so many may forget early how he kept the RedHawks in the race for the regular-season title by getting better every game, but this medium will keep reminding people how instrumental Williams was.

   There's a lot to look forward to with this team. The hardest part is having to wait six months for the next journey.