March 6, 2008
All's Even on the Western Front

By James V. Dowd

They may be down, but don't you dare call Western Michigan out just yet — not with the fresh start that the CCHA playoffs gives to a team that endured a disappointing run in the regular season.

The Broncos struggled mightily, compiling just 10 points (four wins, two ties) in 28 games of league play. And hard as it is to believe, they looked even more anemic on the stat sheet. Among the 12 CCHA teams, the Broncos scored the fewest goals, gave up the second-most scores, and had the worst power play. In fact, the only statistical category in which Western Michigan sat near the top of the conference ratings was in total penalty minutes, where they averaged more than a period a game in the penalty box and ranked two minutes more than any other team in the league.

CCHA Notebook

Western Michigan goaltender Riley Gill stopped all 42 shots he faced in the Broncos' 3-0 win against Notre Dame at Lawson Ice Arena last week.

National TV Schedule

As hopeless as that all sounds, there were a few bright spots that peeked through the clouds during this past weekend's split with Notre Dame. In Friday's 3-0 victory against the Fighting Irish in Kalamazoo, the Broncos overcame their usual parade to the penalty box — which on that night included 15 trips for 38 minutes — by displaying a penalty-killing fervor which will serve them well when they drop the puck against Ferris State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs in Big Rapids this weekend.

“The ref [Stephen McInchak] was calling it kind of tight, which isn't our style,” Western Michigan Riley junior goaltender Riley Gill said to the Kalamazoo Gazette following Friday's win. “But killing off those four penalties in the first period was huge. We adjusted and got it done.”

While McInchak might have driven Western Michigan out of its comfort zone with respect to its physical, grinding game, that style of play is exactly what led to the Broncos' success in a three-point weekend against the Bulldogs in late January. When comparing box scores from that series and a Ferris State sweep of Western Michigan Nov. 30-Dec. 1, playing a clean, physical game is to the Broncos' advantage.

In the January series, the Bulldogs spent 42 minutes in the penalty box over two nights, giving the lackluster WMU offense a chance to go 3-for-20 with a man advantage — points which could have turned the tide in both the one-goal Bronco victory or a tie. In contrast, Western Michigan skaters spent just 26 minutes in the sin bin that weekend, and Ferris State managed only two power play goals. Back in the November, it was Western Michigan spending 10 extra minutes in the box, and two losses to FSU ensued.

Heading into this weekend's games against the Bulldogs, the Broncos seniors know that this weekend could be their last wearing a Western Michigan jersey. With that in mind, they will look to the underclassmen to rally around their cause much like they did in that impressive victory against Notre Dame.

“Everyone knew that this was a special night and the guys really stepped up for us,” senior Jonathon Lupa said. “It was a great team effort all around and everyone wore their hearts on their sleeves.”


Something Old, Something New: There's no doubt that this season was disappointing for Ohio State coach John Markell and his squad. But often times, adversity helps young players mature, which gives Markell hope that his 15-man freshman class might just be more battle-ready than Northern Michigan when the Buckeyes head to Marquette to face the Wildcats in a first-round, best-of-three playoff series this weekend.

CCHA First Round Matchups

No. 12 Western Michigan at No. 5 Ferris State
8-25-3 (4-22-2 CCHA)
15-14-5 (12-12-4 CCHA)
Season series:
FSU leads,
Bronco fact:
WMU is the fourth most penalized team in NCAA hockey, averaging 19.7 PIMs per game.
Bulldog fact:
Ferris State's last 12 games have been decided by two goals or less, and the Bulldogs were 5-4-3 during that stretch.
How FSU wins:
Maintaining the intensity which helped them to a three-point weekend at Notre Dame, a late-season sweep of Miami, and a season-ending split with Michigan.
How WMU wins:
The Broncos need to stick to their physical style, but stay out of the penalty box. PIMs played a major role in WMU's two losses to the Bulldogs this season.

No. 11 Ohio State at No. 6 Northern Michigan
11-23-4 (7-18-3 CCHA)
15-17-4 (12-13-3 CCHA)
Season series:
Split, 1-1
Buckeye fact:
Only Miami has scored more than two goals against the Buckeyes in the last seven games.
Wildcat fact:
NMU's late-season momentum continued last weekend when the 'Cats took its rivalry trophy (the Cappo Cup) back from U.P. foe Lake Superior State.
How NMU wins:
Goalie Brian Stewart has been the key to all of NMU's big wins this season. He needs to play at the top of his game and give the Wildcats a chance — NMU's offense averages just a half a goal better than OSU's.
How OSU wins:
The Bucks need to spread the puck around to get offensive production from every line.

No. 10 Lake Superior State at No. 7 Bowling Green
9-18-7 (7-15-6 CCHA)
16-18-0 (13-15-0 CCHA)
Season series:
Split, 1-1
Laker fact:
LSSU spread the wealth in its regular-season split with Bowling Green — six different players scored goals for the Lakers in the 4-2 loss and 4-1 win.
Falcon fact:
Bowling Green forward Derek Whitmore ended the regular season tied for the CCHA lead in goals in league games. He registered 23 goals in 28 contests.
How BGSU wins:
The Falcons must concentrate on preventing Dan Eves, Nathan Perkovich, and Zac MacVoy from getting easy shots on goal and get Whitmore chances in transition.
How LSSU wins: The Lakers need to create chances. They have three forwards with more than 20 points on the season, and all three can play with an edge, giving them a chance to press BGSU physically.

No. 9 Alaska at No. 8 Nebraska-Omaha
8-19-5 (8-16-4 CCHA)
15-16-4 (11-13-4 CCHA)
Season series:
UNO leads,
Nanook fact:
They've never played a postseason home game, but the senior class owns an impressive career playoff record of 9-6 in their first three years in Fairbanks.
Maverick fact:
Though they trail the all-time series, the Mavs have lost just once in the last 10 meetings with the Nanooks.
How UNO wins:
Take advantage of a top line that can match up with the best in the league. The Nanooks have a solid defensive core and strong goaltending, but Bryan Marshall and Mick Lawrence have produced against just about everyone they've face.
How Alaska Wins:
Ride the senior class, particularly goaltender Wylie Rogers, which has a great deal of playoff experience and something to prove after failing to win the right to host a playoff series for the first time in their career.

“If you go into the [playoffs], in a new season like this, knowing what we know now about ourselves, I think we're playing some of our better hockey,” Markell said. “If you enter a season like we did this year, you don't know quite what you have with such a large freshman class. I feel better about our chances going up there now [than I would have at the beginning of the year.]”

And while the experience of a difficult season has had an immense effect on the freshmen, the elder Buckeyes still have the devastating memory of the Wildcats knocking them out of the first round of last season's CCHA playoffs in Columbus. The upperclassmen certainly remember how such a performance can devastate the senior class as it takes off the scarlet and gray sweaters for the final time.

“[Northern Michigan] ended eight guys' careers,” Markell said. “They thought they were going to try and move on and play another round. That's what this is about — ending guys' careers as far as playing time in college hockey. That should be extremely difficult on both teams.

"We know there's no tomorrow, there's not next week practicing if we don't get it done this weekend. This is what it's all about — putting it on the line in the last two or three series.”

With motivating factors at both ends of the age spectrum and a common goal in mind, Markell believes the key to an OSU victory lies in how well the team bonds relative to differing reasons for motivation. As the Buckeyes can attest have seen with six different skaters scoring game winners in the teams' 11 total victories, everyone needs to be ready at any time for their moment to shine.

“Playoff hockey is playoff hockey,” Markell said. “We found out last year against this team that it's never over until it's over. Any one guy can make a difference and that's what playoffs are. It doesn't always fall in the stars' hands, it sometimes falls into somebody else's hands to make a play and you never know which play in the game might be a critical play.”


• Teams always point to playoff experience on their roster heading into the postseason, but for Western Michigan, that experience hasn't amounted to much. The players on the Broncos' roster have a combined 85 games of playoff experience, but those same players have combined for only four posteseason goals.

One bright spot, however, is goaltender Riley Gill who, despite going 1-2-0 in his three playoff appearances, has posted a respectable 2.30 goals against average and has stopped 93 percent of the shots he has faced.

• Not that Michigan forward and Hobey Baker favorite Kevin Porter hasn't played at a high standard all along, but his impressive 14 points in nine February games left opponents staring in awe, and rightfully earned him the RBC Financial Group CCHA Player of the Month accolade. During the month-long stretch, the senior notched a point in eight of those nine contests and had multiple points on five occasions.

• Michigan State netminder Jeff Lerg hasn't drawn quite as much attention this season as his spectacular play did during the Spartans' run to the NCAA title last spring, but his 4-0 shutout of Bowling Green marked his fourth clean sheet of the year — a single-season personal best — and the 10th in his first three seasons in East Lansing.

• A focal point for Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson during his team's bye week will be the skaters' ability to finish off scoring chances. Against Western Michigan last Friday, the Irish outshot the Broncos through two periods, 27-16, but trailed 2-0 after any number of Notre Dame forwards and blueliners failed to convert on prime chances to cut into the lead. Jackson pointed to this deficiency as a problem throughout the second half of the season, and a reason for his team's lackluster performance in recent weeks.

• Nathan Davis, Ryan Jones, Justin Mercier. These names come readily to mind when people think of Miami's prolific offense, but freshman forward Andy Miele has, perhaps, had the most impressive second half of all the RedHawk icers.

Miele joined the team in January after breaking the career scoring record of the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League. The freshman has continued his torrid pace from the USHL, notching a point per game in his young collegiate career and earning CCHA rookie of the week honors after scoring a goal and two assists in last Friday's regular season finale against Ohio State.

• Although the custom-designed jerseys didn't arrive in time for the Military Appreciation Night which Nebraska-Omaha netminder Jerad Kaufmann organized in honor of Bryan McDonough, a friend who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq, the night was still a resounding success. The Mavericks were able to get their hands on different military-themed sweaters — the auction of the secondary shirts raised $11,400 for the Bryan McDonough Military Heroes Foundation.

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report. James V. Dowd can be reached at