A Chase To the Top
Western Michigan's Balisy, Classmates Leave Behind Great Legacy
by Phil Ervin/CHN Reporter
MINNEAPOLIS Chase Balisy came to Kalamazoo in 2010 salivating over the prospect of engineering a program turnaround.
But even the California kid with dark, wavy rocker-style locks and a wicked wrister couldn't have foreseen the era he was about to usher in at Western Michigan.
New coach. New conference. New standards.
It all came to an excruciating culmination — not conclusion, as the Broncos will face either Miami or North Dakota Saturday afternoon in a consolation contest — with a 4-3 loss to Denver in the inaugural National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff game Friday evening in the Twin Cities. But as Balisy and Western Michigan coach Andy Murray choked back tears in the immediate aftermath, the former NHL head man made it clear whom he credits for the club's ascension the past four years.
"This guy to my left," Murray told a Target Center media room full of college hockey reporters, "has spent four years and has turned this program around, along with the rest of our seniors."
Western Michigan's second-leading scoring threat and a pair of fellow fourth-year Broncos have helped the team secure at least 19 wins each of their seasons in black and gold — a stretch that includes a 2012 CCHA title and NCAA tournament appearances in 2011 and 2012. The year before their arrival, Western Michigan won eight games.
Their presence, Murray says, made the transition to his first-ever collegiate coaching gig an easy one. Once the Los Angeles Kings' and St. Louis Blues' bench director, he took over for Jeff Blashill, who instigated the Broncos' rise in 2010-11 but left for a job with the Detroit Red Wings a year later.
And then came the college hockey landscape's 2011 overhaul, when Penn State announced it'd field a team and the Big Ten added pucks as a sanctioned activity.
Without Balisy's 33 points, including four more in last weekend's quarterfinals clincher at Minnesota-Duluth, this transition to the NCHC might have gone quite differently. The same goes for left winger Shane Berschbach — whose breakaway goal tied Friday's game at the second period's 6:11 mark — and defenseman Dennis Brown, who began their collegiate careers alongside Balisy.
Someday soon, the center from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., and his classmates will be able to appreciate it.
But probably not this weekend.
"It's pretty special; just tough to know you've got one game left," Balisy said.
The tears were insurmountable. Balisy cut himself short, wiping them away with the "C" on his jersey.
Tied for 19th in the Pairwise entering tournament play, Western Michigan (19-15-5) won't be making its third NCAA appearance in the past four seasons. Instead, Denver (19-5-6) is a win away from its sixth berth since 2008.
Ty Loney made sure of it with 4:53 left in the third period of a slow, grind-it-out affair on less-than-ideal ice, stealing a lethargic pass from Jordan Oesterle deep in the Western Michigan zone and beating goalie Frank Sublowski from point-blank range. The Broncos had jumped out to a 1-0 advantage and led 3-2 with 1:54 left in the second after Will Kessel's toss at the crease skidded in off Pioneers defenseman Joey LaLeggia's skate.
But the junior from Burnaby, British Columbia made amends with 3.4 seconds to go in the frame, firing a shot from the point through traffic and into the net.
"It was great to get that goal back for our team," said LaLeggia, the leading goal scorer on the fourth-highest-scoring defensive unit in college hockey, "especially in a timely manner."
Richter Award finalist Sam Brittain made seven of his 24 saves in the third, and sixth-seeded Denver kept Western Michigan from sustaining any meaningful stints in its offensive zone until Sublowski (11 saves) headed for the bench with about a minute to go.
Neither team had much offensive success save for the rush, thanks to both coach's defensive-minded philosophies and a playing surface that needed tending and delayed the second period's start by about five minutes. The sheet inside the home of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves wasn't completed until late Wednesday night and "wasn't too great all game," according to Loney.
But first-year Denver coach Jim Montgomery will take it, especially after his initial go-round on the job required more adjustments than most — a conference shift will do that.
"I feel like a little infant," said Montgomery, whose squad rallied to upset Nebraska-Omaha on the road last weekend after dropping the series opener. "Everything I'm going through this year, it's the first time. But it's a great ride. I'm very lucky to have great juniors and seniors.
"That's made it easier on me in my first year as a head coach."
Murray, who's coached at the NHL, AHL, juniors, high school and international levels, knows the feeling. Before Blashill's one year in charge, Western Michigan hadn't made college hockey's big dance since 1996.
The Broncos were especially opportunistic this season, finishing fifth in the NCHC standings and reaching the semifinals after some media members picked them to come in last.
Baloney, in Murray's well-trained eyes.
"We had 36 games on our schedule; I thought we'd win them all," Murray said. "If we didn't believe that, we shouldn't have played them. We should've said 'you know what? You can have the points, and we'll pack up.'"
It's with that belief that Balisy, Berschbach and company will attempt to pick up and try for 20 wins in Saturday afternoon's third-place game. Knowing it's their last means there won't be any lack of motivation, Balisy suggested.
"I think any time you get to put on these jerseys is pretty special," Balisy said.
Then the 2011 sixth-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators trailed off again. Moments later, he and Murray's eyelids were bright red as they trudged down a lower-level hallway and back to the Broncos' dressing room.