Miami carries the MAC flag alone into the NCAA hockey tournament

Miami and Notre Dame could be playing on Sunday with a Frozen Four spot on the line. - Jonathan Daniel

After things didn't quite go Western Michigan's way last weekend, Miami will be the only MAC representative in the 16-team NCAA field. They take on Minnesota State-Mankato in their first-round matchup on Saturday.

Miami headed into the CCHA final four in Detroit last weekend needing one win to put themselves in a good position for a 1-seed, and two wins to guarantee it. Unfortunately, they ran into the red-hot buzzsaw that was Michigan, who turned a close 0-0 game into a 4-0 blowout in a span of 8 minutes early in the second period. Miami got one back before the period ended, but a Michigan goal in the first minute of the third ensured that there would be no comeback.

It probably wasn't as bad as it looks, as Miami outshot the Wolverines 35-27 on the night. But that's kind of like totaling your car in a wreck and saying, "Hey, I only broke my legs! At least I'm still alive!" The let-off in those eight minutes cost Miami a 1-seed, as they dropped to fifth in the pairwise rankings. But much like breaking your legs can give you a new appreciation for life, the fall might have been a blessing in disguise.

If Michigan had beaten Notre Dame in Sunday's CCHA championship game, the Irish would have fallen to eighth in the pairwise and Miami would have remained at four, giving them a 1-seed. Instead, Notre Dame was able to cool off Michgan (and in doing so end their 23-year streak of tournament appearances) and they jumped up to four, leaving Miami in the aforementioned five slot.

As it turned out, both teams ended up in the Midwest Regional in Toledo, with Notre Dame as the 1-seed and Miami the 2-seed. Notre Dame's reward? Playing 4-seed St. Cloud State, the team that won the regular-season title of the WCHA, a conference that oh-by-the-way sent six teams to the tournament, more than any other. To illustrate the fickleness of the pairwise rankings: Had St. Cloud gotten splits in their series against New Hampshire (season opener, Oct. 12-13) and Northern Michigan (Jan. 4-5) they would have finished as a 1-seed. Instead, they had to sweat out the results of last weekend as a bubble team. But they're in, and they take on a Notre Dame team that is firing on all cylinders right now.

Miami, meanwhile, will face another WCHA team, Minnesota State-Mankato. It has been a banner year for the Mavericks, making the NCAA tournament for the first time since their only other appearance in 2003, and recently their first-year coach, Mike Hastings, was named College Hockey News' Coach of the Year, posting a 24-win season after the team lost 24 last year. The Mavericks present an interesting matchup for the RedHawks. Like Miami, Minnesota State has had a freshman goaltender lead them, and like Miami's Ryan McKay, Stephon Williams was chased from net in their last game. The Mavericks fell to Wisconsin 7-2 in the WCHA tournament in a game that was never in doubt.

Outside of their goalie, the Mavericks are an older team than Miami, but with no tournament experience. The RedHawks, while young, all have at least the tournament game from last season to draw from (aside from the freshmen, of course). Minnesota State will certainly look to shut down Miami's top duo of CCHA Rookie of the Year Riley Barber and CCHA Player of the Year Austin Czarnik, which would mean Miami would need to get some secondary scoring from players like Curtis McKenzie, Cody Murphy, and Sean Kuraly. If those guys can get on the score sheet, it could be a long night for the Mavericks. If not, Miami might need to rely on its goaltending yet again.

Head coach Enrico Blasi hasn't indicated whether McKay or fellow freshman Jay Williams will start on Saturday after McKay's poor performance last weekend, but he had started the previous seven games. This week's practice will ultimately determine it, but my money is on McKay getting the start. A vote of confidence from the coach would do well for not only McKay's confidence, but the team's as well.

And finally, because stats can be fun sometimes: this is the eighth consecutive year Miami has made the NCAA tournament. Their record against teams from Hockey East in the last seven years: 1-7. Their record against everyone else: 6-0. Does this mean anything for this weekend? Almost certainly not. But it is interesting. Only three Hockey East teams made the tournament, and if Miami were to make it to Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four, they could see Boston College in a semifinal, and either Massachusetts-Lowell or New Hampshire in the final. But after two first-round exits in the last two years, simply getting back there would be a big step for Miami.

Miami-Minnesota State can be seen on ESPN3 on Saturday at 5 eastern.

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