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Shea Walters of Bemidji State takes a break during practice at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. (Eric Stromgren/Bemidji Pioneer)

Frozen Four: Battle of underdogs

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Frozen Four: Battle of underdogs
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WASHINGTON - Miami coach Enrico Blasi chuckled a little bit when he mentioned an NCAA gambling meeting he and other coaches just attended.


You want a deterrent? Forget the meetings and take a look at the NCAA men's hockey tournament bracket.

An impossible-to-predict Frozen Four will begin today with the most improbable matchup of all - No. 4-seed Miami against No. 4-seed Bemidji State (4 p.m., ESPN2). It's the first time ever that two fourth seeds have matched up in the Frozen Four.

It's also a matchup of two schools that have never played in college hockey's showcase event.

"All I know is it's all about fairytales right now," Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. "I've heard Cinderella, David vs. Goliath, miracle, things like that. So, I'm up on my fairytales."

Both teams played the underdog card during Wednesday's press conferences at the Verizon Center, located downtown in the nation's capital city.

"I think a lot of people in a lot of different areas of the country have adopted Bemidji State because we are the feel-good story," Serratore said. "I think that's gratifying and hopefully we won't let them down."

Bemidji State, the No. 16 overall seed in the tournament, said that for two weeks it has been hearing all about its surprising run. The Wall Street Journal went as far to say that Bemidji State's run to the Frozen Four is the third-biggest underdog story in the history of college athletics.

"The closest parallel to Bemidji State is last year's Fresno State baseball team, which became the lowest to win an NCAA title," WSJ's Darren Everson said. "But Bemidji State is by far the lowest-ranked team in this year's hockey tournament. If they keep their run going, they may become the biggest surprise of all."

Not so fast, Blasi says.

"Someone asked the underdog question earlier - I think we are the underdog," Blasi said. "They are a pretty good team. They are playing really well. We know we have to play our best tomorrow afternoon."

Miami senior forward Brian Kaufman said he was impressed that Bemidji State put up nine goals on Notre Dame and Cornell - two of the top five defensive teams in the country - on its way to a Midwest Regional title.

"They have been underestimated this whole year and it's the same thing right now," Kaufman said. "I think teams took them kind of lightly, obviously in the first two games and they're a great team. I don't think there is an underdog, especially not in Bemidji."

If there is one thing the teams can agree on it's that special teams are likely to decide the outcome of the game. Both teams have heavily relied on the success of their power play and penalty kill.

The Beavers ranked third nationally in combined special teams success. Their top unit is the power play, which is converting at 20.4 percent. That's good for sixth nationally.

Miami's combined special teams success is ranked fifth in the country and its top unit is the penalty kill. The Redhawks are killing 89.8 percent of opponent power plays, tied for tops in the nation.

"We have to know their tendencies," Miami forward Justin Mercier said, "and know what they're good at. But the most important thing we have to do is make sure we are playing our best. That means our penalty kill is on, our power play is moving the puck well, we're getting it deep in the zone and we're getting shots on goal."

The Beavers say they have to continue playing their fast-paced game that is driven by a potent top line. If they play fast and physical, they won't be underdogs for long.

"We have to worry about how we play, how we execute, how we compete," Serratore said. "We have to make sure we have good legs, bring energy, keep our shifts short. It's the old adage, you can control how smart you work and how hard you work.

"We're really excited to play tomorrow. And we're really excited to play in a historical Frozen Four."