BRONCOS BUCK HISTORY, TOP MICHIGAN TO ADVANCE
Western Michigan 5, Michigan 2 | Box Score
DETROIT – It’s easy to refer to Western Michigan as a Cinderella story. Its journey from the league’s basement last year to the top four this year has been well-documented and the notion was only furthered with a convincing 5-2 drubbing of Michigan Friday in a CCHA semifinal contest at Joe Louis Arena.
The thing is, this has the feel of something much more than a one-time trip to the dance.
Things began to change in Kalamazoo when Jeff Blashill took over after the conclusion of last year’s United States Hockey League season, where he served as head coach of the Indiana Ice. The key to that change was the first-year head coach’s belief in the players that were there.
There was always talent at Western Michigan; Blashill let his players know it, but pushed and prodded until he got the most out of them. And while the work ethic he instilled and the coaching day in and day out has certainly brought them to the point where they now rest—a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament and a team with a chance win the Mason Cup on Saturday night—it was that faith in the guys that were already in the locker room that sparked the sea change that has brought the Broncos to the verge of a CCHA playoff championship and that faith that may fundamentally change the future of Western Michigan’s hockey program.
“It meant a lot,” forward Derek Roehl said of Blashill’s faith in the current players. “Since day one, he told us that we had a chance to do it, we just had to earn it.
“Having his players believing, and working on a vast array of areas—both hockey-wise and psychologically—that needed improvement, the results have been sensational.
Friday’s win showcased many of the improved hockey fundamentals, but it also showed one major psychological change—the ability to stay calm in any situation. Having blown a 4-1 lead against Ferris State the previous Saturday, the Broncos battled back to win 5-4 in overtime, but were resolved to maintaining a high level of focus and discipline no matter the leads or deficits they would face this weekend.
The most prominent sign of success in this area?
Up 3-0, the Broncos gave up a goal to Michigan that may have turned the tide against Western Michigan in previous years, but this time, Roehl fought back with a goal just 40 seconds later to give his team a 4-1 lead.”That’s part of the change of things, we try to stay as composed as possible at all times,” captain Ian Slater said. “Whether things are going our way or aren’t going our way, we like to keep that even keel and need to stay composed and stick to our game plan. You can’t worry about what happened, you have to worry about that next play and how you’re going to improve and keep a consistent effort.”
Maybe the proverbial other shoe will drop for the Broncos in Saturday’s CCHA title game against Miami, a team Blashill describes as the best in college hockey right now. That’s not going to change the direction this WMU program is headed, and that outcome is even-odds with the Broncos winning the title if they play like they did tonight. That’s why this lacks the feel of a Cinderella story; it feels more like a potential sleeping giant may have woken up.
While the long-term view of the program is important, Blashill isn’t letting visions for the future cloud the picture of the opportunity they have at present.”We’ve tried to move the program forward throughout the season,” Blashill said. “We’ve taken steps along the way, and obviously last Sunday getting to the Joe was a big step and tonight is another big step. We have a great chance at a championship game right in front of us.”
MIAMI’S MIELE, SMITH TRADE ROLES FOR A NIGHT
Miami 6, Notre Dame 2 | Box Score
All year long, Miami sophomore Reilly Smith has been the primary beneficiary of the masterful playmaking of senior Andy Miele, notching 26 goals, many of which came directly from pinpoint passes by Miele. Friday night at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, it was Smith’s turn to return the favor, as he set Miele up twice and assisted on a power play goal by Alden Hirschfeld to lead Miami to a 6-2 victory over Notre Dame in CCHA semifinal play.
That shift in roles—Miele from playmaker to goal scorer (although he did add two assists of his own), and Smith from finisher to set-up man—was about the only thing different for Miami from recent weeks, as the RedHawks built on momentum from a 11-game unbeaten streak with four first-period goals to put the Fighting Irish away early.
Credit is due to Carter Camper for opening the scoring four minutes into the first period and Bryon Paulazzo for opening the lead 1:01 later, but Miele’s two strikes stood out among the crowd, furthering his case for the Hobey Baker Award.
At the 12:01 mark of the second period, the senior was half shoved and half tripped by a Notre Dame defenseman, but as Miele was falling to the ice, Smith found his stick with a pass that Miele put past Fighting Irish netminder Mike Johnson between the time his knees hit the ice and he face-planted.
“That was just one of those lucky goals,” Miele said. “I just wanted to get the puck on net, and luckily I did and it went under his arm and into the net.”
The often light-hearted Smith didn’t want Miele to forget where it came from.
“It was the pass,” Smith joked.
The two hooked up a second time in the third period, ending any chance of a Notre Dame comeback by extending Miami’s lead to 6-2. Miele was open in the slot and slipped a shot past Johnson, who was pulled in favor of Steven Summerhays after the goal, off of a clean feed from Smith, eerily reminiscent of many that Miele has put right on Smith’s stick.
The roles may have been reversed, but Smith and Miele were plenty pleased that they collectively put the Redhawks in a position to win their first-ever Mason Cup Saturday night.
“He’s been getting on me a little bit,” Smith said. “He’s always getting me the open nets, so finally I got to give back to him, whatever helps the team.”
SEEN AND HEARD AT THE JOE
• Michigan coach Red Berenson has been around the league for a long time, and he has seen a lot of ups and downs for many of the league’s programs. The veteran coach already sees sustainable changes in the way Western Michigan is playing hockey under Jeff Blashill.
“It’s night and day,” Berenson said. “Jeff Blashill has that team running a structured game, they’re playing disciplined, and they’ve had success doing it. It has been that way right from the get-go this year. They’ve been one of the most consistent teams in our league.”
• The Lawson Lunatics were out in full force and provided an even match for the children of Yost, who, understandably were relatively quiet tonight. There are a lot of great games at the Joe that don’t have the intensity in the crowd to match, but Western Michigan’s fans brought an atmosphere usually reserved for Michigan-Michigan State games at that venue.
• Despite giving up five goals in two periods of action, Shawn Hunwick will start in goal for the Michigan Wolverines Saturday. Berenson seemingly always prefers a single-goalie system, so it’s little surprise he’ll go back to the horse that brought him here against Notre Dame .
• Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson isn’t thrilled that his team will have to play a consolation game Saturday afternoon. His team should be in the tournament, but a win over Michigan would go a long way to solidify that. Nevertheless, Jackson didn’t mince words on how he and other coaches around the league feel about the Saturday afternoon contest.
“There’s not a coach in the league who likes the third-place game,” Jackson said. “We tried to vote it out a number of times. But the bottom line is that it can be an important game for us or whoever, so it’s important we prepare to play tomorrow.”
PLUSSES AND MINUSES
Props to Andy Miele for continuing his production on the big stage. Often times Hobey candidates and leaders may fall apart when the pressure is on, but Miele was as even-keeled as ever and showed why he’s a leading candidate for college hockey’s top individual honor.
Michigan AD David Brandon was in the building for the game tonight after attending the Michigan basketball team’s NCAA Tournament game in Charlotte earlier today. That’s some dedication. And, presumably, some nice access to the “Pizza Plane” that became so famous during the football program’s coaching search this year.
Michigan’s teams are typically level-headed and well-composed, but they lost their cool at several junctions of the game tonight. The team needs to let cooler heads prevail if they want to beat Notre Dame Saturday and be a player in the NCAA Tournament.
Each team had at least a power play goal tonight, and those goals played a key role in both games. Where was the penalty killing though? With the exception of Miami killing off five of six, no other team did better than 67% on the kill. If these teams want to compete nationally, they’ll have to pick up the slack while a man (or two) down.
INCH’s THREE STARS OF THE NIGHT
3. Jerry Kuhn, G, Western Michigan: Kuhn allowed two goals on 29 shots, but obtained near rock-star status with the throngs of Lawson Lunatics in the house. He made some key saves at key times and never lost focus, even after giving up goals.
2. Reilly Smith, F, Miami: Smith showed some versatility as a playmaker, and continues to emerge as a future leader of this Miami team.
1. Andy Miele, F, Miami: Miele, as he has been for months, was awesome. with two goals and two assists in leading his team to a berthin the title game.
All four teams seem primed for NCAA Tournament bids, but Notre Dame might do well to beat Michigan tomorrow to hold onto their spot. Both the Fighting Irish and Wolverines could use the win to help re-establish some momentum before the tournament.
For Miami, a win Saturday would likely lock down a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and would be yet another huge step for the program, bringing home the Mason Cup for the first time ever. Western Michigan will look to come out with the same intensity that it did tonight, and have teams trembling while thinking about where this program might be once Jeff Blashill has time to build it up even further.