Oxford, OH — The building was beautiful and the buzz was high, and everyone associated with Miami hockey was calling this the most important game in the program’s history, but the RedHawks were equally delighted to call this one a win.
Bolstered by an emotional packed house for Miami’s first game in its ultra-modern Steve Cady Arena in the brand-new Goggin Ice Center, the RedHawks beat the Denver Pioneers, 5-2, to advance to Saturday night’s title contest of the 2006 Ice Breaker Invitational.
Given the pomp and circumstance surrounding the opening of Miami’s new arena — a pre-game dedication with a slew of former Miami players including NHLer Brian Savage and a between-periods induction of former Miami and current Denver coach George Gwozdecky into Miami’s “Cradle of Coaches” — the post-game interviews served as a refreshing reminder that this was a hockey game that mattered.
“In all seriousness, I think it’s a great night for Miami hockey,” said Gwozdecky. “I was very impressed with their team, how hard they played. When we did get a few chances, I thought [Miami goaltender Charlie] Effinger was very good and very steady. They played really, really well.
“I think they showed everybody that they deserved their preseason ranking and maybe even higher. I was extremely impressed.”
RedHawk junior and captain Ryan Jones had two goals on which assistant captain and classmate Nathan Davis helped. Effinger had 28 saves on 30 shots, and the Miami defense was especially impressive, given that Denver had 15 power-play chances, including a full two-minute, two-man advantage early in the first.
“I think it was a good hockey game,” said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi. “They had their chances. Charlie played really well in net, we were opportunistic on our chances, we got a couple of good power-play goals in front of the net, our penalty killing did a great job…they had a five-on-three real early and we killed that and I thought that kind of swung the momentum a little bit.”
The RedHawks took the momentum from that kill and converted it almost directly into a goal. When simultaneous penalties to Joe Cooper and Brad Robbins ended at 6:43, sophomore Michael Findorff scored his first career goal for Miami, taking Brian Kaufman’s blind feed from the boards in the top-left slot and one-timing it past Denver’s Peter Mannino at 7:33 for the 1-0 Miami lead.
“I was so happy for him,” said Jones. “I couldn’t have picked a better person. He was a guy that wasn’t always in the lineup last year, and he worked just as hard as anybody, if not harder. To see him out there, scoring that goal, I was so happy for him.”
In spite of time spent in the penalty box — including a penalty for delay of game when fans threw debris onto the ice following Miami’s second goal after having been warned about doing so when celebrating Findorff’s tally — the RedHawks were up 3-0 by the midway point of the second. Cooper scored from close in to the right of the Denver net at 17:11 of the first to give Miami a 2-0 lead after one, and Justin Mercier earned Miami’s first power-play goal of the season at 4:11 in the second to make it 3-0.
Denver’s Patrick Mullen scored his own power-play to ruin Effinger’s shutout, but Jones’ two quick man-advantage markers less than a minute apart late in the stanza gave Miami a 5-1 lead after two. Pioneer Chris Butler added his goal at 4:29, bringing the eventual final score to 5-2.
Early in the third period, the game had reached denouement, whether caused by the second Denver second goal, the relentless special teams play, or the inevitable draining of the crowd’s game-opening adrenaline. Gwozdecky said that the Pioneers had to “take some chances” in the final 20 minutes, leading to their best play of the game.
“I thought we were a lot more aggressive in our positioning and picked up some loose pucks and were able to create some odd-man rushes going the other way. Our transition game was much, much better, and as a result had a few more chances.
“Miami put us in a pretty good hole after the first two periods. When I analyze our game, I think the first thing that really stands out was our lack of continuity and really ineffectiveness on the power play.”
Mannino had 26 saves on 31 shots. Denver went 1-for-15 on the power play, Miami 2-for-eight. The number of penalties the RedHawks incurred was a concern for Blasi, but the coach was content overall with Miami’s style of play.
“We took a lot of penalties tonight out of aggressive play and I like that,” said Blasi. “We’re going to continue to play that way. The foolish penalties, the slashes, those are things that we don’t stand for, our team does not stand for that, so we’ll correct those, but those are emotion penalties.”
The Pioneers will face off against the Colgate Raiders at 4:35 p.m. Saturday, while the RedHawks will play Vermont for this year’s Ice Breaker Invitational title at 7:35 p.m.