April 11, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) —Where’s Bemidji? That’s so yesterday.

Here’s the latest question from the Frozen Four: Where’s Miami?

Well, when it comes to hockey, it’s in the Midwest.

“It certainly is not in Florida,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “I sure hope everybody’s enjoying this back in Oxford, Ohio.”

A Miami school will play for an NCAA title, and it’s not the Hurricanes from down South. The RedHawks, in the first national semifinal game played by any sports team in the university’s history, beat fellow upstart Bemidji State, 4-1, on Thursday night to advance to the championship of the Frozen Four.

“It puts Miami on the map,” left wing Justin Mercier said. “To establish ourselves as a perennial powerhouse, we need to make it to more Frozen Fours. It has to start somewhere, right?”
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Stunning upsets in the first two rounds made Bemidji State - the small university located in a northern Minnesota town better known for its place in the Paul Bunyan legend - the darlings of the week, much as George Mason was at basketball’s Final Four three years ago. GMU even loaned its “Green Machine” pep band to the green-clad Beavers and played a chorus or two of “Livin’ on a Prayer” - Mason’s unofficial theme song during the 2006 run - in an unsuccessful attempt to rally the school’s kindred spirits in the third period.

Yet, while Bemidji State had the funkier name (pronounced, as the sports world knows by now, beh-MIDGE-ee), it was Miami University that had the three-goal burst in the second period that essentially settled the game.

Miami (23-12-5) will face Boston University, which beat Vermont, 5-4, in Saturday’s title game. Bemidji State (20-16-1) will head home with a George Mason-like feeling - good enough to make its sport’s biggest stage, but not good enough to win once it was there.

“A lot of people were pulling for us; we knew that going into the game,” BSU defenseman Cody Bostock said. “It’s a feel-good story for a lot of people out there. It’s something special to be a part of. You want to thank everyone out there.

“Unfortunately, tonight we came up on the wrong end, but it’s been a good run. The time of a lifetime. Something I’ll never forget.”

Had the Beavers not been here, Miami would have been carrying the banner for the underdogs. The RedHawks, who not long ago used to call themselves the Redskins, might be best known among sports fans for producing Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Only one Division I hockey school - Alabama-Huntsville - is further south. Oxford’s population of 22,000 could almost squeeze into the Verizon Center, although Bemidji’s 14,000 or so would fit with room to spare.

“I think it just puts an exclamation point on what coach Blasi has been building since he got to Miami,” Mercier said. “He really had a vision, and when I was being recruited here to Miami, I really believed what he was doing, and in what he was doing.”

Tommy Wingels, Alden Hirschfeld and Bill Loupee all found the net during the second-period barrage, scoring more goals against Bemidji State in seven minutes than the Beavers allowed in the first two rounds, when they shocked the college hockey world by beating Notre Dame and Cornell.

Wingels also had an empty-net goal in the third. Freshman goalie Cody Reichard made 24 saves for the RedHawks.

Both schools were not only in the Frozen Four for the first time, but both were No. 4 seeds in the regionals - the lowest rung of the 16-team tournament. As might be expected from the newcomers, the first period was more of a shake-the-nerves, feeling-out process than anything else.

Wingels started the scoring by beating goalie Matt Dalton to the stick side from the left circle early in the second period. The goal ended a streak of 10 consecutive successful penalty kills for the Beavers.

Wingels then supplied the backhand pass to Hirschfeld to make the score 2-0. Matt Read pulled Bemidji State within one with a power-play goal about a minute later, but Loupee restored the two-goal lead a minute after that, when he camped next to the crease and got his stick on the puck, deflecting it off a sprawling Dalton and into the net.

Bemidji’s fans had come out in force, dominating one corner of the rink with signs and cheers and the borrowed pep band, but the crowd couldn’t rally the Beavers one more time.

“Obviously when you lose, it stings, but you have to get over it,” Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. “But after you reflect back and you look at it and, you know what, you’re proud that you were able to participate in an event like this.”

Boston University is one victory from its fifth national championship and a familiar face greeted Colin Wilson and Matt Gilroy as they stepped out of the locker room after leading the team to its 10th NCAA hockey championship game.

It was Mike Eruzione—yes, that Eruzione, captain of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team and a BU grad. Grabbing Gilroy’s hand, Eruzione said, “Congratulations! One more, huh?”

That’s right, Mike: One more victory, and these top-seeded Terriers can celebrate their fifth national title and the school’s first since 1995.

In an NCAA tournament filled with upstarts and upsets, hockey blue-blood Boston University reached the final by beating Vermont in a thrill-a-minute Frozen Four game Thursday night, thanks to Wilson’s two goals, including a tiebreaker with about five minutes left.

“We walk down our hallway with the pictures of the national championship teams. We look at that every day,” said Gilroy, a defenseman who like Wilson is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award given to college hockey’s top player.

“BU’s the team to beat,” Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon said. “In my opinion, they’re the best team in the country—and have been that way for most of the year.”

BU (34-6-4) was the only No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the 16-team tourney to reach the Frozen Four—and the only past champion to get that far. Yet Vermont (22-12-5), the only team to beat Boston twice this season, led 4-3 midway through the third period on freshman Drew MacKenzie’s first college goal.

“We had a taste of it toward the end of the game there,” Sneddon said. “We needed to be a little bit better defensively to get the job done.”

It seemed as though no lead was safe in this back-and-forth game featuring two freshman goalies, and MacKenzie was involved again—in the worst of ways—when BU made it 4-4 with just under seven minutes left. Chris Higgins’ shot was blocked by goalie Rob Madore, but the puck bounced right off a sliding MacKenzie’s stick and into the net.

“They kept coming,” MacKenzie said.

That they did, and it took all of 73 seconds for Boston to finally take control for good, when Higgins took a shot that Madore kicked away—right to Wilson, who tapped the puck in.

“I just kind of got to the net and sure enough, the rebound went right on my tape. Good feeling,” said Wilson, whose father, Carey, played 13 seasons in the NHL.

What went through his mind on the go-ahead score?

“I didn’t really have a thought. I think it was just a natural reaction to have a whack at it,” Wilson said. “After, it kind of seeped in that I just scored a big goal.”

Wilson, who leads BU in assists and points this season, was taken by the Nashville Predators with the seventh overall pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft and is expected to leave school after this season.

“At times, he’s been like a man playing with boys,” Boston coach Jack Parker said, “and he showed that a lot tonight.”

Wilson also scored the game’s first goal, standing with his back to the net while redirecting a teammate’s shot. That helped BU go up 2-0, a lead that was gone after Wahsontiio Stacey, Justin Milo and Josh Burrows scored to give Vermont a 3-2 lead.

But Vinny Saponari’s power-play goal with 1:21 left in the second period made it 3-3 heading to the third.

“The biggest goal of the game, no question about it,” Parker said.

He set records by coaching in his 23rd NCAA tournament and 13th national semifinal. Now he wants his third championship at BU.

The banners that normally hang from the Verizon Center rafters were taken down for the Frozen Four, replaced by ones noting past NCAA hockey champions. BU was the only one of this year’s participants to be so honored, thanks to its titles from 1971, 1972, 1978, 1995.

Miami and Bemidji State never had even been to the semifinals before; Vermont made one previous trip that far, losing in the round of four in 1996.

The Terriers took note.

“We went out and looked at the banners,” Gilroy said. “The tradition’s there, and we’d love to add to it.”