May 31, 2012

By Chris Rydburg

OXFORD, Ohio - As Miami University hockey alumni Alec Martinez ('09) of the Los Angeles Kings and Andy Greene ('06) of the New Jersey Devils, both defensemen, go head-to-head in the Stanley Cup Finals, in Oxford, the current members of Miami's hockey team are excited for the final showdown between the two teams. Most of the current RedHawks are in Oxford taking summer classes and training for the start of the NCAA hockey season. Although academics, lifting weights and conditioning are the team's main focus, the summer is also a good time for team bonding.

"I think all of us are going to the house where most of the guys live to watch the game(s) on a big screen TV together," said rising sophomore Blake Coleman.

This playoff season has been exciting for NHL fans. They have been treated to 24 overtime games and counting, including game one of the Stanley Cup Finals Wednesday night, a new NHL record. It has also been a postseason of aggression as the NHL suspended more players in the first round of the 2012 playoff games than they did last year throughout the entire playoffs. Between triple overtime games running into the wee hours of the morning to thunderous checks, it seems like this year's playoff games have been filled with more drama than any other year in recent memory.

"The intensity always picks up in the playoffs. Sometimes players lose their cool and that is when you see the physical or dirty play," rising senior Joe Hartman said. "Even the star players are blocking shots and finishing their checks. Everybody loves playoff hockey because of that intensity. It's awesome watching those guys do that. You get to see the best players in the world at their best."

The Cup Finals will be no different this year as a pair of underdogs who few saw advancing to this point square off in what is sure to be a thrilling duel for Lord Stanley's prized Cup.

"It's a great story because the Kings were an eight seed (in the Western Conference). The same can be said for the Devils (six seed in the Eastern Conference). I actually had the Devils losing in the first round against the Florida Panthers," said rising sophomore Cody Murphy, who received a glare from Coleman when revealing his incorrect prediction.

Coleman was a third round pick (75th overall) of the Devils in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. As a prospect in the Devils organization, Coleman said he couldn't be more excited about his future team being in the Stanley Cup Finals.

"It is really exciting. It shows what kind of world-class organization the Devils are. I've gotten to know some of the guys from camp. Especially guys like Adam Henrique, who are younger players (like me)."

The hockey team may be united in their love for Miami University, but seem to be divided in their allegiance when it comes to NHL playoff time. Every player interviewed had a different team they rooted for during their childhood.

"As a kid I was always glued to the TV. Calgary is pretty close to my hometown. It was pretty amazing to see the excitement in the area (during the playoffs), even though I'm not a fan of the Flames," recalls rising senior Curtis McKenzie, who hails from Golden, B.C. "A lot of my friends went to the games."

Like most British Columbia natives, McKenzie's favorite NHL team is the Vancouver Canucks, a team that was only one win away last year from hoisting the Cup for the first time in franchise history, but fell to the Boston Bruins in seven games. McKenzie had hoped this year would be different. Much to his chagrin, the winners of the President's Trophy (awarded to the team with the NHL's best regular-season record) fell in the first round of the playoffs to the determined Kings.

"The Canucks were a bit of a disappointment this year, maybe next year will be their year," McKenzie said.

Hartman also grew up a Canucks fan in Minnesota because the North Stars hockey team moved from Minnesota to Dallas to become the Dallas Stars in 1993, when Hartman was just four years old.

"Before I became a Minnesota Wild fan, I was a huge fan of the Vancouver Canucks back when they had Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden on the team. When the Wild came around, I had to tear away from the Canucks and became a Wild fan. I guess I should've watched them more as my playing style is nothing like Pavel Bure," Hartman joked.

Rising sophomore Jimmy Mullin felt the same disappointment as McKenzie with the Philadelphia Flyers, who he had picked to win the Cup this year before the playoffs started. The Philadelphia native was very pleased when his home team ousted the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round but that joy was quickly erased by the New Jersey Devils, who eliminated them in the next series.

"Yeah, I get upset when the Flyers lose," Mullin said, "but ultimately you are just a fan of the game regardless what team is playing." Although this year's playoffs didn't go as he'd hoped, Mullin still has several fond memories of the playoffs growing up.

"I think my first real memories of the Stanley Cup were with my family in Philadelphia, when guys like Keith Primeau and Eric Lindros were on the team. My cousins and I would watch all the games."

Mullin wasn't the only RedHawk who incorrectly had the Flyers advancing to the finals.

"I had Philly (coming out of) the East. After that Pittsburgh series I didn't think anyone could beat them with the way Giroux was lighting up the score sheet. I thought they were a team that was going to make it all the way," said Murphy, who calls Highwood, Ill. home. "I am a Chicago fan and I thought the Blackhawks would beat the Phoenix Coyotes no problem, maybe five games max, but Mike Smith was that good for the Coyotes."

Phoenix beat Chicago in the first round in six games.

For his favorite playoff memory, Coleman, who is from Plano, Texas, just outside Dallas, recalled game six of the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals between the Dallas Stars and the Buffalo Sabres. History, of course, remembers this hockey game as a controversial one, which saw a game-winning goal counted that likely shouldn't have been a goal. This feeling is especially true if you were cheering for the Sabres as Brett Hull of the Stars pushed the puck in the net while his foot was in the crease.

"I grew up a Stars fan so when they beat the Buffalo Sabres to win the Cup that year I was at my grandmother's and the game went into triple overtime. I think it didn't end till 2:30 (in the morning) or something like that. We were listening to it on the radio because we didn't have a TV," Coleman explained.

The RedHawks were unanimous, however, when they talked about their favorite parts of the playoffs.

"Every night it seems like there is a new hero. Those moments when a guy scores a game-winning goal, people don't forget that," Murphy said, sighting the emergence of L.A.'s Dustin Brown and Phoenix netminder Mike Smith as this year's main heroes.

"Jonathan Quick has just been playing lights out for them," McKenzie said of the Kings goaltender. "He's become a star. So has Brown. The best player (in the playoffs) has been Brown so far. How dominant he's been is just amazing. He's been one of my favorite players for a while now, and he's scoring goals and getting big hits. He's just doing everything for his team, and it is awesome to see."

But McKenzie, along with Coleman, also gave some love to the Devils.

"New Jersey's fourth line has been one of the best on the team, they are getting timely goals," McKenzie noted.

"The Devils are going to win because of the fourth line scoring depth they have. If they continue to contribute, Devils will win," Coleman predicted.

One of the more interesting storylines this postseason has been the emergence of Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers. Kreider, who just won the 2012 NCAA Championship with Boston College, joined the Rangers in their quest for the Cup after winning the NCAA title. The rookie tallied a respectable seven points in 18 games before the Devils topped the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Everyone agreed that Kreider's success has been a bit of an inspiration for them, but Mullin summed up the general consensus best.

"Watching Kreider play after winning the NCAA Championship with Boston College has been the best story for me this postseason. His success goes to show you that college hockey isn't so far away from the NHL. You can be in one place one day and another the next. That really puts things in perspective. It makes everyone excited. College kids have what it takes to make it big in the NHL."

After recalling playoff memories of days gone by, the players were ready to make their final predictions.

"I got to stay with the Kings in five games. West Coast is the best coast," McKenzie said, giving the edge to the team he thinks has the best blueline and goaltending.

"Kings in six, with Brown being the X-factor," Murphy agreed.

"I have to say, I think the Kings in six," Hartman predicted, quickly adding, "I want L.A. to win it because they are a young, talented team, but I am also cheering for our alumni individually on both teams."

"I'd like to see the series go to seven, but the way L.A. is playing I would have to say six games," Mullin said. "They have the better goaltender in Quick and goaltending is the key to championships. You want to see both of those Miami guys win it, but there can only be one winner. When Martinez came to visit (last year), I got to know him a little, and he was a great guy. I want him to win it."

All of these predictions put Coleman in a bit of a difficult position. His teammates unanimously picked against his future team.

"I believe in them, I am going to pick the Devils in six," Coleman said.

Regardless of which team raises the cup, Miami is guaranteed to celebrate one Stanley Cup champion and just the third in program history (Dan Boyle and Kevyn Adams). For the current RedHawk hockey team, watching the NHL playoffs together means more than just welcoming a champion back on campus. All the players agreed that watching the games together was a bonding experience and would be something they would remember for the rest of their lives. The memories and dreams they share will be joined together as they watch the Cup lifted in a few days by a team of winners, reliving their childhood dreams of hoisting the Stanley Cup themselves one day.

"They all are so smart, there is tons of stuff that they are so good at," Hartman concluded. "Even though you don't have the pressure of playing in the game, it's a good time to watch the best players in the world show you what to improve on as a player."