Weekend Preview: Western Michigan at Miami
Miami returns home this weekend (finally!) coming off a run of ten games that saw the RedHawks play nine of those games on the road. Fortunately for Miami, they kept their heads above water and finished 6-4 over that stretch.
Much was made over the summer about former head coach Jeff Blashill’s decision to leave Kalamazoo after just one season, a season in which the Broncos went from last in the CCHA to an overtime exit in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the hands of Denver. Rightly, many WMU fans were concerned the resurrection of a dormant program would be short-lived with the loss of Blashill and that the impending demise of the CCHA might leave the Broncos holding the bag with the also-rans of what will be the new WCHA. Or, maybe they were left wondering if they could somehow find a home with either the newly formed NCHC, or perhaps, Hockey East alongside Notre Dame.
But, the hiring of a big time head coach in Murray and Notre Dame’s decision to join Hockey East opened the door for WMU to receive an invitation to join the NCHC and secure its hockey future. So, along with longtime MAC rival Miami, plus North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Colorado College and Denver, Western joined the new eight team conference that will begin play in 2013.
With the drama of the future of the program seemingly behind them, Western picked up right where they left off last year when they earned a fourth place regular season CCHA finish and a spot in the Mason Cup championship game. Of course, they dropped a 5-2 decision to Miami in that title game when the RedHawks claimed their first Mason Cup title by scoring three times in the third period to pull away.
Offensively, the Broncos are led by sophomores Chase Balisy (9-15-24) and Shane Berschbach (6-16-22) and junior Dane Walters (10-8-18) who is coming off an injury in Friday night’s victory over Notre Dame. Walters left Friday’s game with the injury, did not return and also missed Saturday’s series finale when the Broncos finished an impressive home-and-home sweep of the Irish. At this point, I’d assume Walters is a “gametime decision,” but I fully expect to see him in the starting lineup for WMU tonight.
Defensively, the Broncos are impressive. Led by sophomores Dennis Brown and Dan DeKeyser, junior Matt Tennyson and senior Derek Roehl, Western features one of the best bluelines in college hockey. They can defend, they have size and they all possess big shots. However, Miami should be able to exploit the Broncos with their speed as I have not been impressed with the foot speed of the Broncos. In their two games (both losses) against Minnesota-Duluth two weeks ago, it was blatantly apparent the Broncos could not skate with an elite group of forwards like both the Bulldogs and the RedHawks possess. If Miami can get their legs going, they should have a distinct advantage in that area.
Check out this sweet “double one-timer” executed perfectly by the Bronco blueliners in last weekend’s game at Lawson Ice Arena against Notre Dame. Some serious skill here.
In net, Western has featured both junior Nick Pisellini and freshman Frank Slubowski who it appears is taking over the reins as Andy Murray’s go-to guy. Slubowski has an impressive 1.98 goals against average and a more human .909 save percentage with two shutouts. If Slubowski does start tonight, it’s safe to say the Goggin crowd will do their best to introduce “The Big Slubowski” to the Balcony.
It will be interesting to see who Miami head coach Enrico Blasi starts in net tonight. Not to beat a dead horse, err Bronco, but will Rico follow his own advice and start the goaltender who had the best week of practice and will tonight’s outcome truly dictate what happens tomorrow night? Because he did not do that last weekend. What should be certain is the RedHawks will regain the services of freshman forward Tyler Biggs after he served a two-game suspension last weekend for an elbow to the head of Michigan State’s Matt Grassi a couple weeks ago. Biggs, should be able to provide the big body the RedHawks need to work their puck possession game against the stout defense of Western Michigan and add a much needed burst of energy in front of what should be a raucous student section in Oxford.
The Broncos (12-7-5, 9-4-3-3 2nd CCHA) come in flying high off last weekend’s sweep of Notre Dame. Miami (12-10-2, 8-8-2-1 t5th CCHA) is 3-1 in their last four (they should be 4-0) and is beginning to find the back of the net with more regularity. Connor Knapp has played very well recently having won four straight starts and has allowed just two goals in his past three starts. I really like the way Miami matches up with what I feel is a bit of a plodding Western Michigan team. Our size, speed and goaltending should provide an advantage over a hard working, but not as talented Bronco squad. I really want to call a Miami sweep playing tonight in front of the home crowd for the first time since December 10, but I have to admit I have been surprised by the staying power of the Broncos. They have been impressive and a good showing this weekend might just make me a believer.
– Here’s the series preview at MURedHawks.com
– Pete Conrad’s take on red hot Jimmy Mullin
– Miami is 9-0-1 in the last 10 at home vs. WMU