CHICAGO — Miami sure gave fans quite the scare in its second outdoor hockey game in as many calendar years.
After the RedHawks took a 4-0 lead in the waning moments of the second period, Western Michigan countered with three tallies of its own in the final frame. The comeback fell short, however, and Miami skated away with a 4-3 victory at Soldier Field on Saturday night.
Questionable ice conditions and tepid temperatures delayed the start of this year’s encore rendition of the Hockey City Classic for nearly two hours and fans of all four participating teams trickled in leading up to the 4:40 p.m. local start time.
“I warned the guys that you’ve got to expect the unexpected,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said of the three separate delays. “You’ve just got to try to stay focused, and I thought the guys did a pretty good job of that.”
For the players, too, it was a battle to keep cool and maintain a focus.
“It was my first outdoor game actually,” Miami’s Louie Belpedio, a Chicago native, said. “We tried to stay as relaxed as possible and look forward to the game, and not worry about what’s going on outside.”
The opening minutes were dedicated to sizing up the playing conditions in addition to the opposition, and neither team was willing to take many risks in the early going. A failed clear and an early exit by the Bronco blueliners from the defensive zone allowed Alex Gacek to find a wide-open Alex Wideman in front of the net, and the RedHawks took the lead at the 13:28 mark of the first period.
The second frame saw a heightened physical intensity brought by both teams, but it was the RedHawks that reaped benefits on the scoreboard. A bevy of calls, several of which were called into question by the Bronco bench and fans alike, put Miami on five straight power plays. The Red and White converted two man-advantages, the first of which was a birthday goal for Riley Barber, his 12th of the year.
Kevin Morris finished off the latter and Belpedio assisted on both tallies. Sean Kuraly weaseled one by Lukas Hafner with 1:30 left in the second for what would eventually become his eighth game-winning goal of the year, tying a Miami single-season record. That, however, is where Miami ceased to own the contest.
The third period was anyone’s game in the first few minutes, until the Broncos took to the offensive at 8:02, when the Black and Gold struck gold on Josh Pitt’s first goal of the year.
Aiden Muir didn’t give up on Western Michigan’s second goal, a multi-rebound effort occurring just 37 seconds later. The teams traded shots for the remainder of the contest and though the RedHawks had a chance to bury the Broncos, Frank Slubowski remained perfect in relief of Hafner.
Captain Sheldon Dries played the hero for the Broncos with only 45 seconds remaining in the game as his redirected tip finding its way past Jay Williams to bring his team within a goal. The game was a close one to the end, but the final buzzer signaled Miami as winners.
“It was an up and down game,” Broncos’ forward Frederik Tiffels said after the game. “We put ourselves behind the eight ball. We didn’t do the proper things in the second period, and that was our downfall.”
Western Michigan coach Andy Murray was thrilled by the opportunity to play at the Stadium in the Park, but the sting of a close loss was evident.
“There are no moral victories in hockey,” he said. “But we battled back. It was a great venue to play in and we were excited to be here.”
Blasi, too, was excited to play at one of the most unique venues in all of college sports, and it didn’t hurt that his team came out on top.
“We know they were going to come and this was two good teams going at it,” Blasi said. “Coyote and the people that ran the game are unbelievable. To be here all night and get the ice the way it is so that we can play, nothing but kudos to them. They did a great job. If they invite us to come back again, we’re here.”