Starting in mid-November, Western Michigan went through a difficult stretch where the Broncos won one game in nine outings from the end of the first half through the start of the second half, going 1-6-2-1.
According to coach Andy Murray, however, during that stretch he felt his team was starting to find its way, and all they needed to do was get healthy.
“We went through it right before Christmas, but we played some good hockey,” said Murray. “We had 44 shots on North Dakota and lost 1-0 in the last minute of overtime. It takes guys a while if they’ve missed 10-12 games to get back and find their groove, Wade Allison missed a year and half and then at the start of this year he got hurt twice and missed games, so it took him a little bit of time to get going.”
Among the players who had missed substantial playing time were Allison (nine games), Cam Lee (10 games), and Mattias Samuelsson (six games). Several other players missed 2-3 games, and it made it hard for the Broncos to get into their groove.
However, just before a series against Colorado College, the Broncos did get fully healthy, and since then they have gone 7-1-0 and moved into fourth place in the NCHC standings, good for home ice in the playoffs, and to 18th in the PairWise standings, which puts them within shooting distance of being able to get an NCAA tournament berth as an at-large team.
“Other than a Paul Washe being suspended for two games, we’ve had a complete lineup since then,” stated Murray. “We came out of the Notre Dame series where we had 44 and 46 shots in two games and got one tie out of it. We didn’t have Mattias Samuelsson, we didn’t have a couple other guys, and we got them back for the CC series. We played some good hockey, and we haven’t changed our lines for a long time. Our power-play units now are kind of what we thought we were going to have at the start of the year.”
During the last eight games, Allison’s return to form has been a big boost. Allison has had 13 points during the Broncos streak, displaying the electrifying form he had as a sophomore before getting hurt.
“It’s the healthiest he’s been for two years or so,” said Murray of Allison. “When he was last healthy, he had 31 points in 20 games. He hasn’t been the same since then. That’s not any fault to him. He hasn’t been healthy and couldn’t get in the right kind of groove on the ice and conditioning-wise. He’s playing a power forward game now that not only are we excited about, I’m sure the (NHL’s Philadelphia) Flyers are as well. It’s good to see.”
One of the other things that has helped Western Michigan has been the play of its eight seniors. Senior defensemen Lee has come on strong, helping on the back end, and players like Hugh McGing and Dawson DiPietro are big contributors offensively.
“We knew at the start of the year that our seniors were going to be the ones that had to get it done for this year,” stated Murray. “We have eight seniors, and we haven’t had that many since I’ve been here just with guys leaving early, which is a good thing, too. Our seniors have played well. Hugh McGing has played his best hockey, Lawton Courtnall and Dawson DiPietro have come on, Cam Lee has found his groove. Cam was one of our top defensemen last year with 26 points, and he missed the first 10 games or so. It took him a while. We’re going to do as well as our seniors play. They’re healthy and they’re back, and if they play well, we have a chance to win against anybody.”
As happy as Murray has been with the offensive performance of his team during its 7-1 streak, he also knows there is room for improvement defensively. The Broncos have scored five or more goals in all seven games they have won. In the one game where they were held to two goals (against Omaha), they lost.
“This idea of scoring five or six goals every time just doesn’t happen. If we’re going to have any success, we have to be prepared to win 2-1 as well. It’s great to score, and we’d like to keep it going, but we’re going to have to win some games 2-1.”
In the last four weekends of play, Western Michigan sandwiches home and away series against Miami with series against No. 1 North Dakota and No. 4 Minnesota Duluth, teams the Broncos are 0-3-1 against this year. Murray knows his team has to prepare to play its best every weekend if it wants to have success.
“We’re just trying to figure out how we can beat Miami this weekend. They could care less how many games we’ve won recently, they just want to beat us. I’d say the only thing we are concerned about right now is winning the first game against Miami, and we’ll take it after that. It doesn’t matter who you play. We don’t prepare for Miami or North Dakota, or whatever. We just have to play the right way.”
Colorado College back outside
On Monday, Feb. 17, Colorado College will play another outdoor game, this time at the Faceoff at Falcon Field against crosstown rival Air Force.
The game starts at 5:05 p.m. MST. This will be the second outdoor game for CC, which previously played Denver at Coors Field on Feb. 20, 2016. That game was attended by 35,000 fans.
This will be Air Force’s first outdoor game. The NHL’s Colorado Avalanche will be playing a game at Falcon Stadium on Feb. 15 against the Los Angeles Kings.
More than 1,000 cadets from the Air Force Academy will be part of the pregame festivities, and there will be an aerial demonstration from the Air Force Academy’s 94th Flying Training Squadron and a flyover of four F-35s Lightening IIs from the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.
The Stanley Cup will also be on hand for fans to take photos.
As part of the pregame promotion, Avs captain Gabe Landeskog went down to the Air Force Academy and spent a day as a cadet, complete with a cadet uniform.
Last bye week
This is the final bye week for any NCHC team and is also the last weekend for an out-of-conference series.
In the final three weekends, NCHC teams will battle for position in the standings. There is currently a logjam in the middle, with Denver and Western Michigan tied at third in the standings with 28 points each. St. Cloud State is hot on their heels with 25 points, though the Pioneers and Broncos have two games in hand.
On paper, the Pioneers have the most favorable schedule. After the North Dakota series this weekend, Denver closes against Miami, St. Cloud, and Colorado College. St. Cloud plays North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth before and after Denver, while Western Michigan faces North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth.
Mathematically, it would still be possible for Miami to finish as high as third if the RedHawks could run the table and Denver and Western Michigan went into tailspins. Colorado College and Miami are tied for seventh with 12 points each, but the RedHawks have two games in hand. CC can only finish with 30 points, while Miami’s threshold is 36 points.