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.
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.
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
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.”
SEEN AND HEARD IN THE CCHA
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.
First Round Matchups
No. 12 Western
Michigan at No. 5 Ferris State
WMU: 8-25-3 (4-22-2 CCHA)
FSU: 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.
11 Ohio State at No. 6 Northern Michigan
OSU: 11-23-4 (7-18-3 CCHA)
NMU: 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
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
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
No. 10 Lake
Superior State at No. 7 Bowling Green
LSSU: 9-18-7 (7-15-6 CCHA)
BGSU: 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.
9 Alaska at No. 8 Nebraska-Omaha
UA: 8-19-5 (8-16-4 CCHA)
UNO: 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.”
FRIES AT THE BOTTOM
OF THE BAG
• 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
A variety of sources were utilized in
the compilation of this report. James V. Dowd can be reached