OXFORD – His team was No. 1.
His team’s red-and-white clad fans had camped outside Steve Cady Arena since Thursday, braving the 33-degree temperature in 60 tents lining the path to the arena’s doors.
And his team was about to play a No. 2 team frustrated after a four-game winless streak.
But Miami (Ohio) coach Enrico Blasi found himself surrounded by the media after Saturday’s game, fielding questions about why his team, all of a sudden, was a disappointment. Obviously flustered, he tried to stick up for his team after a 4-2 loss and 5-5 tie made them victims of the Wolverines’ best series of the season.
“I mean, come on, guys,” Blasi snapped. “We’re 25-4-1. Give me a break.”
He probably didn’t expect it. Not many did. It took just 11 minutes for Michigan to take control of the weekend, with four quick goals in the last half of Friday’s first period. But Saturday’s 5-5 tie showed glaring differences between the teams – and reasons why the Wolverines are atop the CCHA.
Miami is the polished, experienced team that’s looking beyond the CCHA regular-season crown – a statement made by RedHawks senior Nathan Davis after Saturday’s loss, when he said the team is built more for a national championship run.
Michigan is the team that finds an opportunity in every lucky break, the team that can unpredictably swing from being completely dominating (by scoring a goal in the first 63 seconds of each period Saturday) to shockingly bad (in their 2-shot, 8-penalty third period Friday).
But the Wolverines played better than Miami Saturday – and should have won. Defenseman Mark Mitera was tripped by an assistant referee near the blueline in the first period Saturday, giving Miami a 2-on-1 rush that ended in a goal and its first lead of the weekend.
“(The referee) was in the way and it cost us a goal – no question,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “It’s another bad break in the game.”
And after Michigan scored two power-play goals to take a 5-3 lead, Miami scored a goal right after the puck hit goalie Billy Sauer’s stick, bounced on the top of the glass and appeared to hit the netting, going out-of-bounds.
“The whistle should have been blown,” Sauer said. “Lucky? Yeah. The game really shouldn’t have been a tie.”
But the Wolverines still racked up three points this weekend, and the fact they’re upset about not picking up a fourth is telling – and so is Blasi having to heatedly defend his team’s one-point weekend.
Miami is supposed to be the smooth-playing, top-ranked team. But Michigan’s a lot more exciting to watch. Three weeks ago, I wrote I didn’t think the Wolverines were the best in the country. I still don’t know if they are, though it’s almost a given they’ll return to No. 1 when the national rankings are released today.
With Miami done with the meat of its CCHA schedule and Michigan having just one more tough series (Michigan State), the Wolverines should now have convincing proof they’re at the top of the conference. This time, I’m pretty sure they’re for real.
There’s no doubt Michigan’s lack of polish is a little unnerving.
But who says champions have to be veterans?
The Wolverines are a young, feisty team.
Give them a break.
– Ratkowiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.