Team of the Week: Western Michigan
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
For many, Michigan's struggles in the first half have provided the biggest talking point in the CCHA thus far. This weekend, the Wolverines welcome Western Michigan to Yost Ice Arena, a team deserving to be included in the conversation.
The Broncos' performance in the season's first two-and-a-half months has the club in third place in the CCHA and developing a strong resume for the Pairwise. Last weekend, WMU hosted and swept 2012 national finalist Ferris State in a pair of games. The wins extended the Broncos' streak to five games and earned them CHN's Team of the Week.
Relying on defense and goaltending has sustained Western Michigan to this point. Entering the weekend, WMU is 10th nationally in team defense, allowing 2.07 goals per game.
Offensively, the scoring hasn't come to this point. WMU is good for 2.43 goals per game, and Bronco coach Andy Murray is pleased with the results but knows more offense must come for the club to turn a successful first half into a successful season. In one-goal games, the Broncos are 6-1 on the year, and they've managed to win three of seven games when trailing at the start of the third period.
"Well, these games aren't making me any younger," Murray said. "It seems like every night I have my heart in my throat, but we're winning games. Our kids work hard. We'd prefer to score more. Our forecheck has been strong, and we're getting getting chances. For whatever reason, the goals haven't come."
Getting that first goal has often meant "game over" for Western Michigan. However, any lead at all has pretty much meant the same thing. On the year, WMU is 10-0-1 when it's had a lead at any point in a game. Maintaining high levels of play with a lead is a challenge for some teams, and it can short circuit potentially successful seasons. Even with offensive problems, timely goal scoring, paired with reliable defensive play, has proven to be more than enough to make the Broncos a true contender in the conference and nationally.
"The first goal of the game is important," Murray said. "It's hockey. The first team that scores is going to win about 80 percent of the time, it's just the way it is. We've started strong a lot, and it's allowed us to put pressure on our opponent. They're trying to do the same thing to us, but we've been able to sustain it and get goals.
"We want to play with tempo for 60 minutes. We tell our guys that we want to be absolutely miserable to play against. Some teams are hard to play against. We want teams to be dreading third periods against us because we're just miserable to play against."
The tenet has certainly spread through the club. In third periods this season, WMU has outscored its opponents 17-8.
Dane Walters currently leads Western Michigan with 12 points (six goals and six assists), and Chase Balisy's 11 points (six goals and five assists) are second. The offensive numbers aren't mind blowing, but goaltender Frank Slubowski's 2.05 goals-against average tells the story of WMU's success.
Like most coaches, though, Murray is determined to keep his team focused on its games each week. The challenge for many teams is avoiding any issues related to lack of focus that manifest in lost puck battles or lax shifts.
"Frank has been good, but he needs to be better," Murray said. "I don't think there's a player on our team that can't be better than he has been so far. That's not to say anyone has been bad, but we need to keep improving. Every game is a battle for us, and that isn't going to change in the second half. We've won some games, but we aren't good enough not to keep working.
"Our league is a tough league. We've got some wins, but our schedule doesn't get any easier. We're going to Michigan, and they're going to be desperate. They haven't had the best start, so they're going want to end their first half with a good performance at home. Playing at Yost, if we aren't at our best, we'll get embarrassed. This game is funny. If you don't remain humble, it will be humble you very quickly. We take a great deal of pride in that. I always tell our players that the pain of commitment and discipline is far less than the pain of regret."
At this point in the season, the Broncos don't have much to regret, but a strong first semester means nothing if it doesn't translate into a better second half. Murray knows that. He's expressed it to his players, and, if the first 13 games of the season are any evidence, they've taken his message quite seriously.