Western Michigan takes its turn leading the race to the finish

With Western Michigan’s sweep of Michigan last weekend, the Broncos became the new top team in the CCHA, sitting one point ahead of second-place Miami and three points in front of the former No. 1, Notre Dame.

Given that two of the Broncos’ five remaining series are against Miami and Notre Dame, I thought it would be a good thing to ask second-year WMU coach Andy Murray about his team’s remaining schedule.

“In hockey it quite often comes down the last couple of games,” Murray said. “It’s no different for me. It’s not different for us.

“When you play 36 games, every game is a pressure game. The race for me started when we played our first so-called exhibition against Western Ontario.”

At the start of the second half of the season, Notre Dame and Miami were tied atop the CCHA standings with 30 points each. Western Michigan sat in second place with 26 points. In January, the Fighting Irish went 2-6 in CCHA play, giving both the RedHawks and the Broncos every opportunity to capture that top spot. In that same span, though, both Miami and Western played fewer games than did Notre Dame, so there were fewer points to be had for each of those teams.

Additionally, though, neither the RedHawks nor the Broncos could seal the proverbial deal until just this past weekend. Miami was 2-1-1-1 in its four conference contests in January and Western Michigan went 4-1-1-0 in its six games. Both teams swept CCHA opponents last weekend — Miami took two from Bowling Green — while Notre Dame split a conference home series with Ferris State.

“It’s a great race,” Murray said. Four of WMU’s five remaining series are against teams that have a chance of capturing first place: fourth-place Ferris State on the road, second-place Miami at home, sixth-place Ohio State on the road and third-place Notre Dame at home. Last-place Michigan State is the final regular-season opponent the Broncos face, and Murray doesn’t consider the Spartans the least of the Broncos’ worries by any means.

“I don’t consider these games to be any more important than any game we’ve already played this year,” Murray said. “For us, it’s going to be interesting down the stretch.

“We never get ahead of ourselves. Our guys have really accepted the mantra that if you don’t stay humble, you’ll be humbled. We know that we have to play real well to win. If we don’t we won’t. We’re just trying to win the next game we play. We don’t ever talk about a series or a sweep.”

Murray called this weekend’s series against Ferris State a “nail biter.”

“Coach [Bob] Daniels and myself will have our hearts in our throats at the end of the game like we always do when we play each other,” Murray said. “You don’t outwork Ferris State; you need to work as hard as they do. I’m sure he’s telling his team the same thing about us.”

With about a month of regular-season play remaining, Murray said that the Broncos are keeping it simple. “We’re just trying to win as many as we can,” he said.

Western Michigan will try to win as many games as it can with the league’s fifth-best offense, averaging 2.45 goals per game in CCHA play, but the league’s third-best defense (1.89 goals per game).

At this point in the season, there are definite advantages to being the team everyone else is chasing, but Murray and the Broncos know that there are many games to be played. Said Murray: “Somebody asked [senior defenseman and captain] Luke Witkowski, ‘How does it feel to be in first place?’ Luke said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ And he’s right.

“It’ll matter at the end of the season.”

And he’s cagey, too

That sweep of the Wolverines was the first for Western Michigan since Feb. 21-22, 1986. That’s the year that “Platoon” took the Oscar for Best Picture, when Sade won a Grammy in the Best New Artist category and Michael J. Fox took the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his role of Alex P. Keaton in “Family Ties.”

Even after his team swept Michigan — a turn of events that puts the ninth-place Wolverines 20 points out of first place — Murray isn’t ruling out the possibility of Michigan capturing the CCHA playoff title and league’s NCAA automatic bid.

“They’re a very talented team,” Murray said. “There’s still time for them to figure it out.”

Michigan’s 22-year NCAA appearance streak is the longest run ever in Division I hockey. And Murray wasn’t kidding.

Short benches, tough lineups, unique opportunities

Michigan State was banged up against Penn State in its 5-3 win last Friday night and also missing lead scorer sophomore Matt Berry, who was serving his one-game suspension for a game disqualification that he earned against the U.S. Under-18 Team the previous Tuesday night.

That forced Michigan State coach Tom Anastos to get a little creative with the lineup, leading to one of the best quotes of the season after the game. “Tough lineup tonight,” Anastos said. “Tough, tough, tough lineup tonight.”

It wasn’t just what he said but the way he said, as though he were delivering the news to his children that back in his day, he walked up hill both ways in the snow to get to school … on Saturdays. He was so earnest — and I think I missed a couple of “toughs,” too — that no one in the room could do anything but feel how difficult it was for the Spartans to win that game.

It reminded me of the first words Anastos uttered after MSU lost at home to Ohio State on Oct. 21, 2011, the Spartans’ first home loss with their new head coach behind the bench: “Losing sucks.”

The shortened bench last weekend gave Anastos an opportunity to dress someone who will never play a game for MSU. Sophomore defenseman Branden Carney was forced to retire from hockey last year after fracturing his neck Nov. 3, 2011, but Anastos had Carney suit up to fill out the roster and to experience some time on the bench in uniform.

“Although disappointing we don’t have enough players to dress,” Anastos said, “I thought it was at least a unique opportunity to let him take part.”

A homecoming of sorts

It was serious fun watching Penn State play Michigan State last Friday night in a Big Ten preview. No, I am no less sad about the demise of the CCHA and the imminent shift to Big Corporate Sports for five teams currently playing in two other leagues, but it’s always fun to see a new team with new talent.

It was also fun to talk to Guy Gadowsky, the man who is leading the Nittany Lions into Division I hockey. Gadowsky played for four years for Colorado College (1985-89) and came to State College, Pa., after coaching seven years at Princeton, but everyone in the CCHA knows Gadowsky from his five years as head coach of the Alaska Nanooks.

I’ve never heard anyone in college hockey say one bad word about Gadowsky, who has the people skills as well as the coaching skills needed to take on the tough job of building a hockey program at a high-profile school.

Don’t take my word for it.

“I think Gadowsky will do a terrific job,” Anastos said after Friday’s MSU win over PSU. “He’s an engaging guy. He’ll reach out. They’ll find that he takes time to be with people.”

Anastos knows Gadowsky well enough to make such statements from their time together in the CCHA, when Anastos headed the league and Gadowsky was coaching.

In the hallway outside the visitors’ locker room in the belly of Munn Ice Arena, Gadowsky clearly was happy to be in old, familiar surroundings as he talked about Penn State’s nascent hockey team.

“I think we’re a pretty giddy team,” Gadowsky said. “I think we’re all freshmen, basically, and we’re really happy to be here and excited. I think we can play with a lot of emotion and I thought we did.

“You’ve seen the teams in the past; it’s not very dissimilar to what we saw in Alaska. We like to get up and down the ice. We like to play to score goals and after the first period I thought we did a lot of that.”

You can read more about Gadowsky and Penn State in Tim Sullivan’s very good story on USCHO’s front page this week.

Super fan contest — nominate someone now!

You know someone who lives and dies a certain CCHA team, a longtime fan who suffers with the losses and rides the highs until he or she is absolutely unbearable. This is someone who will risk personal safety over icy roads to attend a critical away game, someone who names his cat “Puck” because Chad Alban did — or names her first child “Alban” whether it’s a boy or a girl.

This is a Super Fan, someone who deserves to be nominated for the CCHA’s contest that will award one fan from each of the league’s member schools a prize package that includes two tickets to the CCHA championship tournament in Joe Louis Arena, plus accommodations for two, invitations to the league’s big party the weekend of the tournament and other team-related prizes too good to miss.

You can’t nominate yourself, but you can nominate this Super Fan and should your nominee win, beg to be taken along on the plus-one ticket.

You have to hurry, though, because the contest closes Thursday at 11:59:59 p.m.

Do it! Click here and do it now!

Players of the week

For the third week in a row, we have a Nanooks player honored as offensive player of the week. Impressive for a team that has the 31st-best offense in the nation.

Rookie of the week: Western Michigan forward Colton Hargrove, who had three goals in the Broncos’ sweep of Michigan, including Friday night’s winner. In his previous 18 games, Hargrove had two goals total, both scored against Bemidji State on Jan. 4.

Offensive player of the week: Alaska junior forward Colton Beck, who had three goals in the Nanooks’ sweep of Northern Michigan, including the game-winning tally in each contest. Beck had four goals in 22 games heading into the weekend; his goal Friday night ended a 12-game goal-scoring drought that dated to Nov. 10, 2012.

Defenseman of the week: Miami freshman Matthew Caito, who had three assists in Miami’s sweep of Bowling Green, including a helper on Friday’s game-winning goal. Caito leads all Miami defensemen in points with three goals and 10 assists; two of his goals have come on the power play.

Goaltender of the week: Ohio State senior Brady Hjelle — for the fourth time this season. Hjelle made 64 saves in two OSU wins over Lake Superior State. Hjelle currently has the third-best (1.60) goals against average in the nation and the country’s second-best (.946) save percentage. In CCHA play, Hjelle’s numbers are even more impressive: 1.28 and .956.


1. Minnesota
2. Boston College
3. New Hampshire
4. Miami
5. Quinnipiac
6. Western Michigan
7. St. Cloud State
8. North Dakota
9. Boston University
10. Notre Dame
11. Denver
12. Nebraska-Omaha
13. Dartmouth
14. Yale
15. Minnesota State
16. Alaska
17. Ferris State
18. Niagara
19. Massachusetts-Lowell
20. Wisconsin