St. Cloud-Western Michigan Series Features Two Hot Teams
by Ben Holden/Special to CHN
St. Cloud State and Western Michigan square off in what promises to be an exciting, fast, physical and intense matchup between two of the hottest teams in the nation.
St. Cloud is No. 4 in the Pairwise and has 12 wins and an NCHC-best seven conference wins. Meanwhile, Western Michigan has won four straight games, including two at the Great Lakes Invitational in late December against Michigan and Michigan Tech and two games at home last weekend against Miami.
Western Michigan very well could've been CHN's Team of the Week last week, if not for Northeastern's triumphs.
St. Cloud is led by Nic Dowd and Jonny Brodzinski up front. Both players are big offensive keys, but so are the many forwards that Bob Motzko has on his team that can step up and contribute. That’s one of the biggest things to like about the Huskies — their depth up front, players like Cory Thorson, Jimmy Murray, Nick Oliver, David Morley and the highly-skilled Kalle Kossila. The Huskies will be without the exciting sophomore Joey Benik for tonight’s game, he was injured last week in Denver in their split with the Pioneers.
Defensively, the Huskies have a strong, solid and experienced group. Senior Kevin Gravel and junior Andrew Prochno are two outstanding players on the back end, to go along with a couple of freshmen that can impact the game in different ways. Niklas Nevalainen is a highly-skilled product of Finland, and 6-foot-6 Ben Storm is a physical presence who is only 19 years old and still developing his game.
In net for the Huskies is Ryan Faragaher — one of the top three goalies in the country this season. He’s the real deal, he’s confident and more than capable in net. He proved that last season in helping to lead the Huskies to their first ever Frozen Four appearance. I think a key to his game and development has been his ability to move the puck quickly to his defensemen, he can make the big save and big game-changing save, which he needs to do against a gritty, aggressive Western Michigan team.
"Our team has absolute total confidence in him," Motzko said. "They believe he's the best goalie in the country, great presence, very athletic, now he's maturing and making the game easier."
Speaking of the Broncos, they were 12-for-13 on the penalty kill last weekend at home against Miami and they scored three shorthanded goals in the series. Just amazing numbers by the Broncos' PK units and their coaches, who work so hard on that area of their game.
"We've had the ability to turn games the other way," Murray said. "That's important for us, there's hasn't been a period where we've been totally outplayed. We've responded to a lot, you have to simply respond and react."
Chase Balisy had a his best weekend, point-wise, of the season with two shorties and three assists in the series and was a plus-5. He’s one of the smartest players in college hockey and last weekend he was rewarded in the point department. Tonight he will skate with Shane Berschbach and Justin Kovacs, two players who are having career years this season.
Like St. Cloud, the Broncos have depth at the forward position, and for the Broncos there are three players to watch. Nolan Laporte, tough and gritty and with a scoring touch, Josh Pitt and Colton Hargrove. The latter are big bodied, can bring the physical play and can find the net as well.
On the back end for Murray, Jordan Oesterle, Kenney Morrison and Dennis Brown are the keys. All three play big minutes and will be challenged with the up-tempo offense the Huskies play with their deep group of forwards.
In net for the Broncos, Frank Slubowski had a great weekend last weekend at home against Miami. Either he or Lukas Hafner can go. Hafner was solid in the GLI.
St. Cloud is 5-1 in one-goal games and Western Michigan has had its last five games decided by one goal. My kind of hockey, exciting, close, and right down to the wire.
The bottom line: both of these teams are complete, well-rounded teams with plenty of depth, talent and grit to make for one great series.
Join me, Dave Starman, Shireen Saski and our CBS Sports Network crew tonight at 7 p.m. (ET). Enjoy the game and keep your head up, your stick on the ice and drive to the net! — Ben Holden, CBS Sports Network play by play announcer.