By Grace Remington, Sports Editor
Three extra-skater goals within seven minutes gave No. 4 Miami University hockey a glimmer of hope as they erased a four-goal deficit and vied to keep their season alive in the NCAA East Regional semifinal against No. 15 Providence College Saturday night.
In the final seconds of the game, Miami came close to adding the equalizing goal, but junior forward Branden Tanev converted a loose puck into an empty-netter and sealed a 7-5 Providence victory.
The Friars advanced to the regional final Sunday, where they defeated No. 6 University of Denver 4-1 to earn a Frozen Four berth.
Junior left-wing Cody Murphy and sophomore left-wing Anthony Louis helped the RedHawks to a 2-2 tie at the end of the first period, but Providence exploded for four goals in the second to take the 6-2 lead.
"After the second, we all went in the locker room and said 'hey we need to figure this out, this could be the last period for some of us,'" senior center Austin Czarnik said. "'If you want to do something special, we need to start doing the right thing and start working for every single situation.' So I think we had the right mindset. We believed. A lot of people wouldn't have believed … we knew that we had the right team in there to give us the best chance to come back and win it."
Trailing 6-2 in the third period, head coach Enrico Blasi pulled junior goaltender Ryan McKay from the net for an extra attacker with 13 minutes left. The move allowed the 'Hawks to diminish the Friars' lead to 6-5 with less than two minutes remaining.
"We decided as a coaching staff that at some point we'd start pulling the goalie," Blasi said. "I told them they had to go out and leave it all on the ice. That's kind of characteristic of our culture. Our guys did a really good job. I'm proud of them."
Junior center Sean Kuraly, sophomore forward Devin Loe and junior defenseman Matthew Caito scored one goal apiece in the third period comeback.
The Friars had opportunities to end the game sooner in the third period, but Miami's defensive effort put a stop to almost every play.
A minute after McKay was pulled, MU freshman Scott Dornbrock scrambled to the goalie-less net in a tight race with PC's junior forward Mark Jankowski and blocked a potential empty-netter. With 45 seconds remaining, Providence attempted another empty-net goal, but freshman Louie Belpedio sprinted from his own blue line and threw his body in front of Miami's net to prevent the puck from rolling straight in.
"We were down 6-2 and then it was 6-5 at that point," Belpedio said. "With that last minute left in the game - a lot can happen in that minute - I just tried to hustle back and keep it out. … Every day of our program, it's about never giving up and sticking together through it all. Even though we lost, I think the third period says a lot about our program and the team that we have this year."
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Belpedio crashed into the end boards after the save and staggered off the ice. He said his right shoulder popped out of its socket on the play, but the injury was minor and is healed now.
"It's just a tremendous effort," Murphy said of Belpedio in the post-game press conference. "I just couldn't be more proud of that type of work ethic. Hats off to guys for giving it everything they had until the last buzzer."
Providence outshot Miami 36-34 overall, though MU closed the gap with a 15-3 edge in the third period. Neither team scored on the power play, as the Friars finished 0 for 3 on the man advantage and the RedHawks went 0 for 2.
Junior Jay Williams (23 saves on 28 shots) and McKay (six saves on seven shots) split the duties in goal for the Red and White. Their counterpart, junior goaltender Jon Gillies, stopped 29 of 34 Miami shots. PC's senior forward Shane Luke led the Friars with two goals.
Czarnik's two assists in his final collegiate game tie him with Bill Bok for fifth most points in school history (169).
"It's probably been the best four years of my life and I'd give anything to be back here for another four," the team captain said. "The situations we were put in, being able to win two championships, it's been such a good experience. … I just want to thank Miami University for everything they've given me."
Despite the early exit from the NCAA tournament, Blasi tells his players that The Brotherhood means more than national titles.
"Anytime you win a championship, especially playing in our league, that's pretty good," Blasi said. "I'm really proud of the team and the way we played all year. It's probably one of the most consistent years we've ever had. We never really had a losing streak and the guys did a great job of staying focused. Winning the NCHC Championship - I mean, you see how many NCHC teams are in the tournament - that's the toughest championship there is to win. It's probably easier to win the national championship than it is to win the championship in our league. So it's quite a testament to the team and how they played all season long. Twenty-five wins is not an easy task, going to the national tournament is not easy."
With the conclusion of the season, Miami hockey certainly boasts a list of accomplishments: the second conference title in school history and the first as a member of the NCHC, the 12th 20-plus win season in 16 years, five shutouts, several hat tricks and potentially three seniors who will continue their careers in the NHL.
"We came off a last-place season last year where we lost in the NCHC Championship game," Blasi said. "So for the team to turn around in a year and do what they did, that should not be taken lightly. I think when the dust settles back and everybody looks back at the season we had, hopefully people will say it's pretty special."