The Beavers and RedHawks met in the first national semifinal last year, with Miami winning 4-1 and moving on to play eventual champion Boston University in the title game.
This year, neither team can be considered a Cinderella. Instead, each is seeded as a favorite to win in the Midwest Regional semifinals, set for Saturday in Fort Wayne, Ind. That would set up a rematch from last year's Frozen Four, for the right to go to this year's Frozen Four.
1. Miami RedHawks
By the numbers: 27-7-7, 21-2-5 CCHA (1st)
The Miami program is one built on character and accountability in their locker room. You will simply not meet a more polite group of athletes than the one coached by Enrico Blasi, who learned from mentor George Gwozdecky (currently the coach at Denver). That this program was touched by tragedy in the death of student manager Brendan Burke last month only adds to the storyline surrounding the top seed in this tournament.
Miami will compete as hard as anyone, and they have some great talent all over the ice. Undrafted senior Jarod Palmer leads the way offensively, with 18 goals and 45 points. Juniors Andy Miele, Tommy Wingels, Carter Camper, and Pat Cannone (all undrafted) combined for 59 goals and 153 points. Miele has 99 career games at Miami, and all four other top scorers are over 100 games apiece.
Blasi has to make a decision in goal, where sophomores Cody Reichard (undrafted) and Connor Knapp (Buffalo) have shared time. The two have nearly identical numbers, while Reichard has played a bit more this season.
Under the radar
None of Miami's defensemen score much, but they're big on the blue line, and they're very tough to beat. The biggest offensive threat among the group is likely sophomore Chris Wideman (Ottawa). He has five goals and 21 points, and also plays very strong defensive hockey. This is a smart group, and Wideman has a lot of talent to go along with those smarts.
Current San Jose Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle had a stellar four-year career at Miami from 1994-1998. He was a two-time All American who was co-captain of the RedHawks as a senior. Boyle totaled 40 goals and 147 points in his four years at Miami, tying him for ninth on the school's all-time career scoring list.
2. Bemidji (Minn.) State Beavers
By the numbers: 23-9-4 overall, 14-3-1 CHA (1st)
One year after drama surrounding the future of their hockey program got attention during a shocking Cinderella run to the Frozen Four, the Beavers are more of a favorite. The program has a future now that they've been admitted to the WCHA starting next season, and their new arena is set to open in October.
On the ice, coach Tom Serratore has a group of largely unheralded players who can skate, score, defend, and hit. They're going to be a tough out no matter when they lose (if they lose at all).
Juniors Matt Read and Ian Lowe (both undrafted) are the offensive catalysts. Read leads in points with 40, while Lowe has 20 goals for the team lead. Defenseman Brad Hunt (undrafted) has as much poise with the puck on his stick as anyone in the country, and sophomore goalie Dan Bakala (undrafted) is a win away from 20 in his first year as the regular starter.
Under the radar
Rightfully so, Read has gotten a lot of attention as a top free agent. Another guy to watch is 21-year-old sophomore Ben Kinne (undrafted). The free agent has ten goals and 24 points, and impresses with his willingness to play strong defense and hustle while also going to the net in the offensive zone. He does a good job creating space for smaller linemates.
While Bemidji State has yet to attain the top prize in Division I, there are plenty of championships in its long and storied hockey history. The Beavers have won 13 national championships -- seven as an NAIA school, then five in NCAA Division II and one in NCAA Division III. Legendary coach R.H. "Bob" Peters led them to all 13 titles over his 34 seasons as coach. He won 702 games.
By the numbers: 25-17-1 overall, 14-13-1 CCHA (7th)
Bid: Automatic (won CCHA Tournament)
Just when it looked like Michigan's 19-year streak of NCAA appearances had gone down the drain, the Wolverines went in a stirring six-game streak through the CCHA playoffs. Sweeps of Lake Superior State (Mich.) and Michigan State got the Wolverines to Detroit, where they beat Miami and Northern Michigan to claim the playoff title and an automatic bid.
They did by riding a hot goalie. Junior Shawn Hunwick (undrafted) is a former walk-on who started only after regular Bryan Hogan was injured. Hunwick has responded with a 1.86 goals against and .912 save percentage in nine appearances (7-2 record).
Up front, red-hot junior Louie Caporusso (Ottawa) is up to 20 goals after a huge performance in the playoffs, and junior Carl Hagelin (N.Y. Rangers) has 47 points in 43 games. Freshman Chris Brown (Phoenix) had a nice rookie season, netting 13 goals and playing in every game.
Under the radar
Junior Matt Rust (Florida) blossomed this year, setting career highs in goals (13), assists (25), and points (38). The crafty playmaker wasn't as dangerous as Aaron Palushaj was, but he looked like a stronger player in all zones and continues to become a more consistent player every game.
The last time Michigan missed the NCAA Tournament was 1990. The average price of a gallon of gas was under $2.00 and Mikhail Gorbachev was on his way to a Nobel Peace Prize. At least Michigan fans got to watch rival Michigan State flame out early, as they lost a best-of-three home series to Boston University and missed out on the Frozen Four, too. Wisconsin beat Colgate for the national title.
4. Alabama-Huntsville Chargers
By the numbers: 12-17-3 overall, 6-10-2 CHA (T-3rd)
Bid: Automatic (won CHA Tournament)
Whether it's on purpose or not, Alabama-Huntsville is the true Cinderella of this year's tournament. This program is in danger after losing their conference -- the CHA has disbanded, with Bemidji State joining the WCHA and Niagara and Robert Morris going to Atlantic Hockey -- and getting rejected in an application to join the CCHA.
They will play as an independent next year, with the hope that they can convince the CCHA they are worthy. What better way to do that than to take down the CCHA regular season champion Saturday in Fort Wayne?
UAH doesn't have a single player averaging a point per game. Instead, they rely on strong defensive play in front of star goalie Cameron Talbot (undrafted). His 2.62 goals against won't wow you, but he has posted a .924 save percentage, and he is often the only thing standing in the way of a UAH blowout loss.
Sophomore Cody Campbell (undrafted) is the team's leading scorer with 22 points, and junior Neil Ruffini (undrafted) leads in goals with nine.
Under the radar
Talbot is a quality free agent who could get himself a contract after this season. It's amazing to watch this team play, because they don't really impress you at all up front or on defense, but they play together and they know they can put a lot on Talbot and he'll come through for them.
Believe it or not, they're celebrating 30 years of Charger hockey in Huntsville this year, and they grew into quite the power in the old days of NCAA Division II. UAH won two national championships -- and had a few duels with Bemidji State for the Division II title -- under old coach Doug Ross, who won 378 games there. Current mentor Danton Cole won just 11 games in his first two years on the job, but has brought them back to the NCAAs for the second time as a Division I program.
All times P.M. Eastern
Semifinals - Saturday
Miami vs. Alabama-Huntsville, 4
Bemidji State vs. Michigan, 7:30
Championship - Sunday
Semifinal winners, 8