Veteran Western Michigan returns with championship experience

How do you follow up a CCHA playoff championship in your first year as head coach?

Said Western Michigan’s Andy Murray, “Our basic expectation is to be ready to play every night.”

The two-year turnaround of Broncos hockey is nothing short of amazing. After Jeff Blashill provided the groundwork in 2010-11, Murray built an even stronger foundation with a great run to the Mason Cup.

“The last two seasons,” Murray said, “I think the Bronco hockey program players have had great experiences in terms of competing in the [CCHA] final four and winning the championship last year.

“I think our players have learned just how tough it is to win a championship.”

This season, the Broncos return a veteran team that includes the trio of juniors Chase Balisy and Shane Berschbach and senior Dane Walters, a line responsible for 39 goals a season ago.

“You need certainly a line that is your go-to offensive line,” Murray said. “They probably had to carry the offensive load more than we would have liked. We’re hoping to have more balanced scoring this year. At this particular point, we’re trying different combinations. We’ll sort it out as we go along. That line has played together for two years and has been successful … but they had a third of our goals. We dress four forward lines and we need contributions from other people as well.”

Last season, the Broncos had the 10th-best defense in the nation, allowing 2.24 goals per game. That blue line solidarity is unlikely to change, given that only one defender, Kenney Morrison, is a newcomer.

“We like all seven of our defensemen that we have,” Murray said. “We’ve got certainly Danny DeKeyser and Luke Witkowski … big guys that move the puck effectively. We’ve got [sophomore] Garrett Haar and Kenney Morrison who reminds us a lot of Matt Tennyson, Haar’s partner last year. He shoots the puck very well.

“We’ve got another pair, Dennis Brown and Jordan Oesterle. Oesterle was the second-best conditioned athlete here when we did our testing and we’re looking for a good year from him. Dennis Brown is very deceptive with our power play, helps make our power play work. And we’ve got a seventh defenseman in Matt Stewart, who can play at any time and played some big games through injuries last year.

“Our defense is solid. They need to be that way. We led the conference in shots against last year.”

And then there’s sophomore Frank Slubowski, whose rookie season was more than just solid. Slubowski was in the net when the Broncos captured the playoff championship and he played 32 games total.

“We can’t afford to have Frank go the other direction because he was such a big part of our success last year,” Murray said.

“We also like our other two goaltenders. We’ve got Nick Pisellini who got hurt early in the year … and we’ve really been impressed with a freshman goaltender we brought in this summer by the name of Lukas Hafner.”

For the Broncos, Murray said, experience is one thing but preparation is key. “We’re learning the need to be prepared for every single game,” he said.

About the Broncos

2011-12 overall record: 21-14-6

2011-12 CCHA record: 14-10-4-4 (tie, second)

2012-13 predicted finish (coaches poll): Third

Key losses: F J.J. Crew, F Kyle O’Kane, F Ian Slater, D Matt Tennyson

Players to watch: F Chase Balisy, F Shane Berschbach; G Nick Pisellini, G Frank Slubowski

Impact rookie: F Colton Hargrove

Why the Broncos will finish higher than the coaches poll: After winning the Mason Cup in his first season, do you really think there’s anything Andy Murray can’t do?

Why the Broncos will finish lower than the coaches poll: After two consecutive successful seasons under two consecutive new head coaches, the Broncos may find that they need to learn how to maintain that high level of competitiveness.