Last weekend provided results that yet again had fans of the CCHA scratching their heads. Sweeps by Michigan and Western Michigan have altered the view of the top — again — but the performance of these squads can hardly be surprising. It’s always a bad idea to count out the Wolverines no matter where they are in the standings, as they’ve proved repeatedly in the past 22 years.
The Broncos, though, don’t have that history yet. Under first-year coach Andy Murray, they’re keenly aware that you’re only as good as your last game — or your next.
Sometimes learning the difference between coaching in the NHL and NCAA Division I is as simple as understanding the difference between a bagel and an English muffin.
“I’ve got lots to learn about college hockey and about a lot of different things,” Murray said by phone earlier this week. “NCAA rules, and making sure that we don’t put peanut butter and cream cheese on the bagels.”
Apparently, putting peanut butter and cream cheese on a bagel crosses the line between snacking and meals, which is just one of the things Murray’s learned in his first year in the college ranks.
“We have a little snack for our players at times, and any time you put peanut butter and cream cheese on bagels, that’s a meal,” said Murray. “You get so many meals per year.”
So Murray and his coaching staff learned to give the players bagels without spreads of any kind. “You can give them bagels but you can’t give them English muffins,” said Murray, “because that counts as a meal.”
Murray sighed. “I just don’t know who has the time to think up those rules,” he said.
Another more significant adjustment is the level of preparation he faces weekly. “You see how well prepared the teams are for each game because the coaches have a full week to prepare them,” said Murray. “The work of the coaches at this level is extraordinary.”
Whatever Murray and his assistants Rob Facca and Pat Ferschweiler are doing to prepare the Broncos is working, because Western Michigan is alone in second place following a home-and-home sweep of Notre Dame last weekend. The 3-2 game in South Bend, Ind., Friday was just the fourth home loss of the season for the Irish, and the Broncos improved to 12-7-5 overall with the sweep.
“We battle hard most nights and give ourselves a chance to win,” said Murray. “We’ve had a lot of tight games and had one of the tighter schedules in college hockey. We’re in murderer’s row right now.”
“Murderer’s row” is Murray’s affectionate name for the way WMU’s January schedule begins. Before sweeping Notre Dame, the Broncos lost two at home to defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth, and this weekend WMU travels to Oxford, Ohio, to face a Miami team that looks much improved lately.
“I love this schedule,” said Murray. “The way I’m looking at it now, we’re playing a top team at the top of their game and it should be fun.”
Murray’s succession to Jeff Blashill as head coach in Kalamazoo has appeared nearly seamless, and whatever he’s doing to build on the groundwork laid by Blashill is working. “I know their theme here last year was to be a hard team to play against,” said Murray. “We’ve attempted to go a little bit further this year and we want to be a miserable team to play against.”
That means working as hard as the Broncos possibly can. “We know what will happen to us if we don’t work extremely hard,” said Murray. “We’re not just the kind of team that will get by on a percentage effort. We’ve got to be all-in.
“The bottom line in this sport — I guess any sport — is if you win you feel good and if you lose you feel rotten. You want to avoid feeling rotten.”
Murray said that the games against Notre Dame were like boxing matches. “We were punching,” he said, “but we were careful to keep our guard up all the time.
“Both games were very similar in the sense that we have so much respect for Notre Dame and their ability and how well coached they are. For us it was just having everybody play all-in.”
If the Broncos continue to play as they are — all-in, like boxing matches, with or without peanut butter — WMU has an excellent shot of following up last season’s NCAA appearance with another invitation to the national tournament, quite an accomplishment after finishing the 2009-10 season in last place in the CCHA. It is not a given, however, at least not according to Murray.
“I don’t think there’s a danger here of us taking anyone for granted from where this team’s come from,” said Murray. “They’ve been looking up from below at this time of year before.
“What we have here is that you’d better win the next game because you don’t know when you’ll win again. You’ve got to win Friday. There’s no chance of us overlooking anything. If we don’t happen to win, it’ll be because somebody beat us or outplayed us.
“For a team that’s been at the top all the time, there may be a possibility for taking things for granted. We know we’re a point out of first, but we also know that we’re six points ahead of sixth.”
The Broncos bring a seven-game (5-0-2) league unbeaten streak into Steve Cady Arena this weekend, a stretch in which they’ve scored 3.4 goals per game and given up 1.6. The Broncos are also looking for their first win in Oxford since Nov. 19, 2003. WMU is 0-9-1 in its last 10 games against Miami.
A kiss is still a kiss, a tie is just a tie
A five-point weekend is significant. A five-point weekend can an improve any CCHA team’s upward mobility. However, a five-point weekend is still not a sweep. A tie — even with the extra shootout point — is still not a win.
Surprisingly, people around the league who should know better still don’t get this. For example, the PA announcer in Munn Ice Arena, who announced that a shootout would “determine the winner of tonight’s game” following Michigan State’s 5-5 overtime tie with Northern Michigan.
Nope. It doesn’t. It didn’t.
Then there’s John Keating, host of CCHA Live, the live show that airs on Fox Sports Detroit most usually on Saturdays at 9:30 p.m. When recapping the NMU-MSU series — in which the Spartans took five points on their tie, shootout point and outright win — Keating said, “In Munn tonight, Michigan State going for the sweep and getting it.”
No. No, no, no, no, no.
The Wildcats may have escaped East Lansing with one little point, but they didn’t come away with nothing. And regardless of what the PA announcer, Keating and probably lots of Spartans fans think, MSU did not capture two wins at home last weekend.
Don’t take my word for it. “I’ve got mixed feelings on the game,” Spartans coach Tom Anastos said following the tie Friday night. Trust me when I tell you that Anastos didn’t look like a guy whose team had just won much of anything.
That’s because the Spartans allowed a goal in the final minute of each period, including the third. In fact, they led 5-3 until 13 seconds remained in the second period, when Scott Macaulay scored for the Wildcats to make it 5-4.
Then they led 5-4 until 26 seconds remained in the third, when Tyler Gron did the honors for NMU with a little help from an extra attacker.
Anastos’ description of Gron’s game-tying goal is amazing. Those of you old enough (or lucky enough) to have learned what a Rube Goldberg machine is will appreciate it the most.
“That last goal was a series of both mistakes and a bad break,” Anastos said. “Torey [Krug] had a play and it ends up in their bench so now the faceoff’s in our zone. For a start, it’s there. The play goes to the point. The linesman — I believe it’s the linesman — has not been able to get out of the zone yet. They threw it along the boards. The linesman’s along the boards. Torey cheated behind the net because he was on the guy who scored the goal. The puck went off the linesman’s skate [and] bounced right on their stick and he [Gron] threw it across.”
Anastos added, “Tough break, and you make your breaks, and we didn’t tonight.”
Funny how that doesn’t sound like a guy talking to the press after his team won a game.
Perhaps it’s because the Spartans didn’t, not until Saturday night.
Players of the week
To the victors, the spoils. All four players are from the two teams that swept outright.
Rookie of the week: Western Michigan’s Frank Slubowski, who made 49 saves in the Broncos’ sweep of Notre Dame. Slubowski, whose head shot reminds me of a kid I went to high school with long before Slubowski was born — perhaps because Slubowski is rocking a similar ’80s-style mullet in his photo — had a 1.42 goals-against average and .942 save percentage for the weekend.
Offensive player of the week: Michigan freshman forward Alex Guptill — who so doesn’t look like he has anything to do with the 1980s in his photo — had two goals and two assists in the Wolverines’ sweep of Ohio State. His goal in Sunday’s Frozen Diamond Faceoff was the game winner.
Defenseman of the week: WMU sophomore Dennis Brown, who assisted on all three of the Broncos’ goals Saturday. He also had a helper Friday and has 14 for the season, three more than he did in 2010-11.
Goaltender of the week: UM senior Shawn Hunwick, who had an insane 46 saves in Friday’s 4-0 shutout over OSU in Columbus and another 31 stops in Sunday’s 4-1 win. His numbers on the weekend? Equally crazy: 0.50 goals-against average and .987 save percentage.
Whatever you may think about an individual ballot or the entire USCHO.com Men’s Division I Poll, there are two things that need to be kept in mind.
First, it’s a collective view of the entire field, and not merely based on a single week’s performance — although a given series can help voters make up their minds about a team or the entire field.
Second, the voters don’t pick the NCAA tournament field. In some sense, the poll is immaterial. Why do I vote in it? The same reason I make picks every week. It’s fun and gives people something to talk — or complain — about.
3. Boston University
4. Boston College
7. Ohio State
8. Notre Dame
9. Western Michigan
11. Colorado College
12. Michigan State
14. Ferris State
15. Lake Superior
17. Northern Michigan
20. North Dakota
You like to read, so read this
You have to get a copy of Dave Hendrickson’s debut novel, Cracking the Ice. You already know that Dave’s a good writer. Pops — as we affectionately call him here at USCHO — has been writing about Hockey East from USCHO’s start in 1996. In Cracking the Ice, Dave tells the story of Jessie Stackhouse, a young black hockey player recruited to play at an exclusive New England school in the late 1960s. Dave’s narration is deft, the story compelling and everything about the novel completely enjoyable. Technically it’s juvenilia, a novel intended for a teens, and Dave hits the mark for his intended audience, but it’s a story that adults will enjoy as well.
Check out Dave’s website for information about finding the book. I keep stealing minutes out of busy days to read just a few pages or so and find myself having read for more time than I intended, completely lost in the story.
As I haven’t finished it yet I can’t write a complete review, but it’s so good that I can tell you to get it, read it and share it with anyone who likes good fiction.