Two years after it came within a minute of winning a national hockey championship, Miami (Ohio) is entering the NCAA tournament with a top seed, a lot of experience and more momentum than at any other time.
The RedHawks are in better shape than ever to make a run at that so-elusive title.
Miami won its first Central Collegiate Hockey Association title and received one of the four top seeds in the tournament, which opens Friday. The RedHawks (23-9-6) have won a season-high seven in a row and are unbeaten in their last 13 games, a school record.
"This year, we have high expectations," senior forward Carter Camper said. "This is a team that's been through a lot. We're finally playing our best hockey at the end of the season."
Yale snared the overall No. 1 seed after beating Cornell 6-0 to win the ECAC tournament in Atlantic City, N.J. North Dakota, Boston College and Miami are the other three top seeds in the 16-team field.
No one has experienced more Frozen Four heartbreak recently than Miami, which has grown into a national powerhouse under coach Enrico Blasi, a 1994 Miami graduate now in his 12th season. The RedHawks were a bottom seed when they reached the title game two years ago.
They took a 3-1 lead over Boston University into the final minute, then gave up two goals to send it to overtime. Boston then won it in overtime on a deflected goal, a crushing defeat for an on-the-rise program.
"For the guys who were part of that, it was an unbelievable experience for us all," Camper said. "It's something that drives us every day. You don't want to leave Miami knowing that was the closest chance you had to a national championship. For us seniors, it would be unbelievable to go out as national champions."
The RedHawks lost to Boston College 7-1 in the semifinals last season. They've responded by pulling off an even better season. They made their fourth appearance in the CCHA title game and beat Western Michigan 5-2 for their first Mason Cup.
"Anytime you win a championship, it's a big deal," Blasi said. "It's really nice to have that under our belt. A lot of people who came before us put in a lot of work, so it was nice."
Blasi thinks this team has as good a chance as any of winning Miami's first national title in any sport.
"We're equal in skill," he said, comparing this Miami team to the last few. "We're just probably more of a veteran group and have been through quite a little bit here in the last few years. We've been through some tough battles in the regionals and finals."
The RedHawks have 10 juniors and five seniors on the roster. Seven of their players have been drafted by NHL teams, not the most of any school but on the high side. Camper and forward Andy Miele are among the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award honoring the top college player, making Miami the only school with two finalists.
Camper also was a finalist for the award as a sophomore in 2009. Miami has had a finalist each of the last six seasons while it morphed from a mid-major southwest Ohio college into a national hockey powerhouse. The hockey team has become so good that students aren't as swept up in its success anymore.
The university planned to send a busload of students to Detroit for the CCHA semifinals and title game. There was so little interest that the bus was canceled.
"When I first got here, there was more because it was new," Camper said. "Miami is still amazing, but when we made our first Frozen Four, it was crazy. Now it's almost expected and people don't realize how hard it is to get to the Final Four."
Miami opens against New Hampshire (21-10-6) on Saturday in Manchester, N.H., in the Northeast region. Notre Dame and Merrimack round out that region. Miami opened the season at home against New Hampshire and split a pair of 6-3 games.
"Both sides are familiar with each other," Blasi said. "We match up pretty well with each other."
Yale headlines the East region, which also features Air Force, Minnesota-Duluth and Union.
Boston College tops the West region, which also includes Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha and Michigan.
And North Dakota hovers above the Midwest region, which also has RPI, Western Michigan and Denver.
The Frozen Four is next weekend in St. Paul, Minn.