March 19, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Back on the Big Stage

One Win Shy of a CCHA Title, Western Michigan Proves Its Mettle

by Stephen J. Nesbitt/CHN Reporter

DETROIT — When Broncos coach Jeff Blashill glanced up at the Joe Louis Arena scoreboard in the final seconds of Saturday’s contest, he saw the same thing everyone else did: MIAMI 5, WMU 2.

But Blashill gave a small smile — he knew what the game meant. He knew that most of his team never dreamed of contending for a CCHA championship.

One year ago, no one in their right mind would have expected Western Michigan, the conference’s bottom dweller, to compete with the best of CCHA anytime soon. Coming off a pitiful 8-20-8 campaign last season, the Broncos brought in Blashill to pioneer the rebuilding of a once-proud program.

Blashill, knew the cupboard wasn't bare, though, and promised to turn the team around — with the players he already in Kalamazoo, Mich. But nobody expected it to happen this quickly.

“They asked me (during the interview process) if I felt that we could win with the group of guys in the room,” Blashill said at his introductory press conference in April. “I told them, ‘I don’t know, because until I know them as people, it’d be false for me to answer that question,’ “You really don’t know until guys have faced adversity what they have in terms of their character. And so as we face adversity next year, we’ll find out if we have the right characteristics or not.”

It hasn’t taken the coach long to discover the character of this team. The Broncos went into the final six games of the regular season in good shape, but having to face Miami-Michigan-Notre Dame in a row. Western squeezed one win out of those six, but played well, and finished in the league's Top 4 and still in NCAA position. Then, it lost Game 1 of its playoff series to Ferris State, came back, blew and three-goal lead in Game 3, and won in overtime.

As far as learning about the character of his team, consider it mission accomplished.

Western used its new-found confidence to shellack Michigan 5-2 in Friday's semifinals. Blashill was used to being in big games when he was with Miami as an assistant coach, but here he was, with his own team, taking on his old team, in the league's biggest stage.

And the adversity that Blashill mentioned has been ever present. Facing the RedHawks in the CCHA Tournament title game meant lining up across from the most potent offense in the nation — a team boasting the nation’s top two goal scorers in Miami seniors Andy Miele and Carter Camper.

Through 20 minutes of play, the Broncos looked sorely beaten, trailing 2-0. But a tip-in goal from sophomore forward Mike Leone in the final two minutes of the second frame restored some hopes.

When Western Michigan sophomore winger Dane Walters picked up a loose puck in the slot and rifled it behind RedHawk netminder Cory Reichard early in the third period, the crowd at Joe Louis Arena erupted, bringing the Bronco student section — better known as the “Lawson Lunatics” — back to life.

For a brief moment, the underdog was on pace with the alpha male.

As for the comeback, Blashill pointed to his leader — senior captain Ian Slater — as the team’s driving force.

“(Slater) has been an unreal leader for this hockey team all season,” Blashill said Saturday. “He’s instilled an attitude on this team that cannot be denied, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that were able to battle back and put ourselves in a position to win the hockey game.”

Moments later, Miami took a chokehold on the game and never looked back. The RedHawks scored three unanswered goals to finish Western Michigan.

“Very, very proud of our guys for how hard they fought,” Blashill said. “More proud of them for the sacrifice they made through the summer, through the season, leading up to this point to put us in a position to be a period away from winning a championship.”

Thing is, they'll get to keep going, into the national tournament.

“We’re going to take some positives from this and really work on things that we need to throughout the week and prepare for next weekend," Slater said. "But it’s an opportunity that to be here that most haven’t had, the opportunity to come here and play at Joe Louis and play against the best.”

But as the clock expired and the horn sounded, the Lunatics weren’t streaking to the exits, and they weren’t chanting for their Hobey Baker candidates. They gave credit right back to the man who brought the program back to the national stage.

Chants of “Thank you, Blashill. Thank you, Blashill” rained down from high in the upper bowl at Joe Louis Arena.

“I thought our fans, including the Lunatics were outstanding,” Blashill said. “The passion for hockey, the passion for Bronco hockey … is unmatched by most, and it’s something we think makes Western Michigan hockey a special thing.”

So the coach gave a small smile. He knew — and they knew — the Broncos will be back.

“We have to take this and know that we can play with the best,” Walters said. “We had Miami on their heels in parts of the game, and we know that we can do that. We know that we can play complete games and close teams out, and we’re going to try to do that in the NCAA Tournament.”

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