Life After Wade
Western Mich. Needs to Overcome Key Injuries to Maintain Lofty Status
Western Michigan enters its weekend series at Nebraska-Omaha ranked No. 8 in the Pairwise and in third place in a characteristically tough NCHC, but as a result of an unfortunate series of injuries, thing are about get even tougher for head coach Andy Murray's squad.
Much of the Broncos' first half success was driven by a dynamic top-line — junior Colt Conrad centering a pair of sophomores, childhood friend Wade Allison and Dawson DiPietro. In recent weeks, however, that line has been decimated by injuries, first to Conrad (head/upper body), and most recently, to Allison (lower body).
Allison, a 2016 second-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers and the Broncos' leading scorer with 15 goals and 30 points, suffered his injury on Jan. 13 against St. Cloud State and will miss the remainder of the season. Conrad, meanwhile, has barely played since Dec. 9, missing the last three games entirely.
"We've been without a number of guys," Murray said. "It doesn't matter. Nobody is going to ease up on you, or feel sorry for you. So we just have to push forward, and that's why we practice all of our players all year on the power play. All our players are familiar with the PK and get practice reps. You never know when your time might come.
"In this case, things have happened a little sooner. We're using a lot of different players. We'll dress nine freshmen this weekend."
One of those freshmen is Austin Rueschhoff, who moved up to center DiPietro's line last weekend in a weekend split with Colorado College. Clearly a work in progress without two of its offensive stars, the Broncos struggled to remain consistent during the weekend — following up a 3-2 overtime win on Friday with a 6-5 overtime loss on Saturday night.
"We went into the year with only four seniors and four juniors," Murray said. "So our sophomores and freshmen needed to step up. We're hanging in there. We're playing the best in the country every single night. We've been a competitive team. Our freshmen — they shouldn't be called freshmen anymore. We've already played 24 games, so I don't know if you can call them freshmen anymore."
While a lingering question during the stretch run will be how the Broncos can replace the offense lost by Allison (and, depending on his recovery time, Conrad as well), Murray is looking for a better defensive effort this weekend against an Omaha team that will be eager to improve in its own right, after failing to score a goal in two games at Denver a week ago.
"Our goals-against is too high, and our save percentage is too low," Murray continued. "That's a team thing though. It's not just the goaltenders. Our whole team has to be better in terms of our defensive commitment — and that's our goaltender, defense, and forwards."
Fortunately, the Broncos have some recent success to build on. Last year, they won 22 games and made the NCAA tournament. Earlier this season, they swept the reigning national champions, Denver.
And certainly, Murray — an NHL coaching veteran who is the all-time leader in wins as a head coach for the Los Angeles Kings — has plenty of valuable experience to draw upon, too, as he navigates the impact of his team's recent injuries.
"What you try to do is you try not to make too many changes," Murray said. "We've had a pretty successful season, and we don't want to be throwing everything in the mixer. Then all of a sudden, some of the things you had going well on your other lines, you lose that. We basically move guys into positions where they have the skill sets to be successful. You can't make a checker into a scorer, and sometimes a scorer isn't going to be a checker."
Certainly, it's easy to look ahead to the important games on the horizon — in February and in March as tournament play draws near. These are the weeks the Pairwise becomes more important, and teams build momentum before the playoffs.
Despite those distractions, Murray — level-headed — stays focused on short-term goals, as he keeps his team afloat.
"Our goal right now is to be good at 7:07 p.m. in Omaha," said last season's Herb Brooks NCHC Coach of the Year. "We'll take it after that."