Team of the Week: Western Michigan
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Before the season began, Western Michigan head coach Jeff Blashill insisted, despite being picked to finish 10th in the CCHA, that "standards will be set high."
Now, after a weekend sweep of Michigan State improves the Broncos' record to 6-2-2, Blashill appears to be well on his way to proving most onlookers wrong.
Indeed, essentially no one, from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo, saw this start coming.
"We've had extremely good leadership from [junior] Ian Slater, and the rest of the team has really bought into that," said Blashill, who also stressed the importance of his team bonding during a five-game road stretch in October. "We have been very demanding on our players — almost relentlessly demanding. And that approach isn't going to change. We try to get our guys to reach those standards on a daily basis.
"When they haven't, we let them know. And then they come back and have been great."
Western Michigan finished 12th in the CCHA regular season last year, managing just four conference wins in 28 chances. For the second time in three years under coach Jim Culhane, the Broncos finished the season with just eight total victories.
Change, clearly, was needed in Lawson Ice Arena, and Blashill — a one-time Miami assistant — was brought in to take the reigns. In this season's early going, he has brought poise and composure to a team that appeared to lack confidence just months ago.
Notably, all six wins so far this season have been one-goal affairs, not counting two empty-net goals. And in Friday's win against Michigan State, the Broncos overcame a 2-0 first period deficit to win 4-3.
It would have been an almost unthinkable obstacle just a year ago, when Western Michigan finished the season ranked 53rd out of 58 Division I teams in scoring offense. On Saturday, the Broncos defeated the Spartans 3-1 to complete the weekend sweep — just the third in conference play by Western Michigan during the last four seasons.
"This past weekend was enjoyable for us to be able to have success on our home ice in front of two good crowds," said Blashill. "We had an especially good crowd on Saturday night. I felt that was really important to put our best foot forward. I'm not sure we played our very best, but we found a way to win against a very good Michigan State team. I'm excited that our fans had a chance to get something to cheer about."
Leading the way for Blashill has been senior center Max Campbell, who has nine points already this season. Campbell scored two during the weekend's victories over the Spartans. In addition, sophomore defenseman Matt Tennyson has four goals to his credit, already doubling his point total from the entirety of last season's campaign.
"Max has been consistent night in and night out," said Blashill. "He has a very, very good shot. He doesn't need a lot of scoring chances to score a goal. And Matt has a very good stick from the blue line and can really shoot it hard. In college hockey now, you have to be able to score from the blue line."
Perhaps most significantly — especially with all the close games in which they have been involved — the Broncos have been steadied by the presence of sophomore Nick Pisellini in net. Pisellini boasts a 1.85 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.
And he came up with one big save after another this past weekend against a Michigan State team that came into the series undefeated at 3-0-3.
Said Blashill, "Nick has been very good. If he had just been a little weaker, you can reverse our record, and you and I aren't talking right now. It's important to find a way to win those close games."
After a weekend off, Blashill will take his squad on the road to visit a Ferris State team coming off an impressive win-tie weekend against Miami. The following weekend, Western Michigan will face the RedHawks in what is shaping up to be a potential goaltending showdown.
"Both teams have outstanding coaches, and I've worked under both [Enrico Blasi and Bob Daniels] in the past," said Blashill. "Both get their guys to play great defense, and each weekend, we'll have to earn every inch of ice."
Until then, of course, Blashill will continue to hold his team to the high standards he set when he took control of the Broncos just a few months ago. And why not?
They've shown, so far, that they may have the potential to actually reach them.