By Harrison Schwarz, Staff Writer
In what could be its last games of the year, the Miami University hockey team begins the postseason with a best-of-three series against University of Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Tournament. Miami (15-16-3, 9-13-2 NCHC) is the fifth seed and UMD (15-14-5, 11-10-3 NCHC) is the fourth seed.
To reach the NCAA tournament, Miami must win the NCHC tournament.
"It's do or die," senior forward Kevin Morris said. "We haven't set ourselves up for the tournament yet, so we have to take care of business now if we want any shot at that. I think everyone feels that. There's a sense of pressure, excitement and determination in the air in the locker room."
MU faces a tough test this weekend as they are 0-3-1 against UMD this season. Duluth holds a 7-3-1 lead in the all-time series.
Two of the losses came last weekend when the Bulldogs beat MU 5-0 on March 4 and 3-1 on March 5. Duluth held the RedHawks to just nine shots on goal over the final 40 minutes of play in the 5-0 shutout.
"Playoff hockey is what it's all about," Morris said. "The beautiful part of it is we didn't show them anything we had last weekend. We definitely have more to give. If we stick to our game plan and play for each other and play with desperation and play with a determined mindset, we'll be okay."
The Bulldogs enter the postseason on a four-game win streak, outscoring opponents 14-3 in that time frame. The streak began when it swept then-No. 3 St. Cloud State University on the road on Feb. 26 and 27.
"For us, it all revolves around playing for each other," sophomore defenseman Louis Belpedio said. "We know we need to be better. Two losses are unacceptable, and unfortunately, we don't get to play back here with home ice. We just need to go to Duluth and take care of business and play our game. Everyone is giving their best efforts at all times and that's what you should expect from us."
Over the past four games, UMD sophomore goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo is 4-0 with a 0.75 goals against average and a .974 save percentage. The Bulldogs have averaged 34.8 shots on goal per game this winter, the sixth highest average in the nation.
Miami has advanced to the semifinal round of the conference tournament in six-straight seasons. Since joining the NCHC, MU is 7-2 in the tournament and has made it to the championship game in both seasons. The RedHawks won the 2015 Frozen Faceoff title.
"This is the fun time of the year," head coach Rico Blasi said. "All the hard work, preparation and meetings should come to fruition in the playoffs. For me and the coaching staff, it's not so much about X's and O's anymore. The guys know what they need to do. They just have to go out and execute. There's not much you need to say anymore."
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Miami plays Duluth at 8:07 p.m. Friday and at 8:07 p.m. Saturday in Duluth, Minn at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. If necessary, a third tie-breaking game will be played at 8:07 p.m. Sunday.