Photo by Lauren Olsen, Photography Editor
After a one-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament field, Miami University hockey returns as the top seed in the East Regional and No. 4 team in the country for Saturday's first round matchup with No. 15 Providence College.
The Brotherhood is fresh off its first National Collegiate Hockey Conference title, defeating No. 13 St. Cloud State University 3-2 last Saturday. Miami has won three straight games and five of its last six.
"It's a really exciting moment for us," senior center Austin Czarnik said after last weekend's win. "It's our first time being the No. 1 seed in our four years. We're happy about it, but we have a tough task ahead of us."
Despite the recent success, the 'Hawks may have to overcome playing without their top two goal-scorers.
Junior forward Riley Barber is listed as out indefinitely after leaving Saturday's game with a lower-body injury.
After scoring the hat trick that lifted Miami to the 3-2 win over SCSU, senior center Blake Coleman was ejected when he drew his third game misconduct of the season. Per NCAA rules, the three misconduct penalties earn Coleman an automatic one-game suspension, making him unavailable for Saturday's faceoff.
"It's important to play a good team game," head coach Enrico Blasi said. "It's as simple as that. It doesn't matter who's in our lineup. Our team has to play as a team, and we have to take care of the things we do well and make sure we limit time and space for our opponent. We've played without Blake and we've played without Barber. We're no different than any other team in the country … so you're going to have to go out and play."
The RedHawks (25-13-1) appear in the tournament for the 12th time overall and the ninth time in the last 10 years. MU holds an 8-11 all-time NCAA record and qualified for the Frozen Four in 2009 and 2010. Miami reached the NCAA title game in 2009, falling 4-3 in overtime to Boston University.
The fourth-seeded Friars (22-13-2) return to the competition in back-to-back years for the first time in program history. They enter the tournament on a 13-day break after being bounced from the Hockey East Conference Quarterfinals by University of New Hampshire.
Though the RedHawks and Friars have met 10 times (4-4-2), they have never met in the post-season. Last season, Providence hosted Miami at the Schneider Arena and went 1-0-1. In 2012, the 'Hawks hosted PC at the Goggin Ice Center and posted a 1-0-1 mark. Each of those last four meetings went into overtime.
Miami junior goaltender Jay Williams ranks fifth nationally with a 1.89 goals-against average, while his counterpart Jon Gillies ranks seventh with a 1.95 goals-against average. Williams has a .922 save percentage and five shutouts. Gilles ranks sixth nationally with a .931 save percentage and is assisted by the Friars' fourth-ranked defense, which allows an average of 2.0 goals per game.
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"He might be the best goaltender in the country," Blasi said of Gillies.
The RedHawk defense has been struggling lately, allowing three or more goals in 10 of their last 15 games after doing so just nine times in the first 24 contests. However, the defense has come up big in critical moments, such as killing off the five-minute penalty resulting from Coleman's major and three two-minute penalties in the third period to protect their one-goal lead and win the NCHC championship last week.
Miami's offense is also yielding big plays. The Red and White have scored 29 goals in their last six games. Senior center Austin Czarnik leads MU in scoring with 43 points. The two-year captain has seven goals and 11 points in the last six games.
Junior forward Nick Saracino leads the Friars with 33 points. Five other Providence skaters have totaled at least 23 points.
Blasi has emphasized the importance of team work throughout the season, and the team's recent effort leaves him confident the Brotherhood will survive beyond Saturday's game.
"This isn't anything new to us," Blasi said. "We've been in situations where we've had to play a team at their area or city before. We're just going to go and play. This is a national tournament; this is the fun time of the year."
Puck drop is 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Dunkin' Donuts Arena in Providence, Rhode Island. The winner faces either No. 6 University of Denver or No. 12 Boston College in the East Regional final Sunday.