Broncos bounce No. 2 Notre Dame in front of, like, the entire NHL

Detroit's Ken Holland and Jim Nill were among the dozens of hockey executives in attendance at Lawson Arena on Tuesday.

Western Michigan 3, Notre Dame 2 F/SO*
  • With 8:37 remaining in the first period and his team down 1-0, WMU coach Andy Murray called his only timeout.  Notre Dame, second-ranked and unbeaten in nine games, had already kicked the Broncos over the cliff with Austin Wuthric’s early goal.  Now, things were about to get ugly.  Like maniacal, giggling villains, the Irish were prying WMU’s cold, almost-dead fingers off the rocky ledge … until Murray pressed pause.
  • We don’t know what he said during the timeout, but his face turned a shade of red only seen on a former NHL coach whose team is about to get boat raced in front of Toronto’s Brian Burke and Detroit’s Ken Holland, the NHL’s two most powerful general managers, and a raft full of their scouting peers.
  • Whatever Murray said, though, it worked: Western escaped the first period with no further damage, then tied the game early in the second on defenseman Dennis Brown’s ripper from the point.  1-1.  Game on.
  • Brown also converted in the shootout on a Marty St. Louis-style skate/spray/stop/tap-in move that borders on illegal, at least in the NHL. Out of habit, the GMs still in attendance (Burke had already headed for the airport) phoned Toronto to complain … until they remembered it was Dennis Brown.
  • This was a game of waves: Notre Dame controlled the first period with insane speed and a strength on the puck rarely seen so deep throughout a lineup.  Western counter-punched in the second period and, although the shots were even (6-6), battled in all areas of the rink to hold off the bigger, faster Irish.
  • Then the true momentum shift: WMU’s J.J. Crew stuffed home a rebound to make it 2-1 midway through the period.  A Notre Dame defender shoved Crew as the puck went in and the senior forward flew through the air parallel to the ice in a scene reminiscent of the famous Bobby Orr goal/flying photo after his 1970 Stanley Cup-clinching tally.  (We couldn’t tell if Crew got up and yelled “WHO DOES NUMBER TWO WORK FOR?” in the Irish players’ faces.)

    Boston's Bobby Orr sails through the air after clinching the 1970 Stanley Cup

  • The third period was straight up wild.  ND’s defense left the barn door banging in the breeze all period, which triggered multiple WMU odd-man rushes … that the Broncos failed to convert.  They easily could have won the game in regulation had they a) shot the puck instead of over-passing it; and b) actually hit the net when they pulled the trigger.
  • WMU’s freshman goaltender, Frank Slubowski, should undoubtedly be the team’s number-one.  He made a series of stops in the third period that kept momentum on WMU’s side, including an insane pad-stacking robbery of a sure ND goal with about seven minutes left.  The Irish eventually tied the game on that possession, but the save showed Slubowski clearly is not intimidated.  He was aggressive and challenged shooters all night, yet played with an underlying, steadying calm that no doubt won this game.  He was named first-star.
  • Another seminal moment: WMU’s kill of a 4-on-3 power play in the third period, during which Slubowski looked like he had eight legs. With just a few seconds left on ND’s advantage, all three WMU penalty killers threw themselves into traffic in the crease to keep the puck out of the net. When they finally fired the puck down the ice to safety as penalty time expired, the crowd rose to its feet and let out a roar usually reserved for goals (or, if you’re the Lunatics, Puck Boy pizza pucks).
  • Standing on the concourse an hour before game time was like standing on a sidewalk outside of a Toronto hotel during an NHL Board of Governors meeting.  There was Burke, complete with his red face, tie undone and draped around his neck like a scarf, briefcase on his shoulder, “Movember” ‘stache that he said in a radio interview makes him look like Wilfred Brimley or Captain Kangaroo (he’s right); Flames GM Jay Feaster kept to himself over in section 8; then there were the Red Wings. As in, all of them: Holland, assistant general manager Jim Nill, Kris Draper, Chris Chelios and Director of Player Development Jiri Fischer.

    Brian Burke

  • Everyone was there to scout WMU defenseman Danny DeKeyser (and a few Notre Dame players), although at this point it’s not so much about scouting as it is wooing.  Word is DeKeyser wants to be a Wing, which probably explains why Holland brought everybody and his brother to Kalamazoo.  It’s all about closing the sale. (Hey, where was Blash?)
  • And if you’re DeKeyser, why NOT Detroit?  The history.  The success.  It’s your hometown.  Nick Lidstrom will be around to mentor you, perhaps while still cranking power play slappers from the point at 55 years-old.  Yeah, Tampa is attractive and Steve Yzerman has personally visited, too, but – hey – Stevie Y’s going to end up in Detroit, anyway, once Holland moves to his golf cart, right?
  • Holland and Nill stood along the concourse railing while, eight rows below them, Draper watched Chelios feed his addictions to sunflower seeds and electronic handheld devices.  Seriously, Chelios had his face buried in his iPad the entire game, looking up only to spit shells into an empty water bottle. Draper watched parts of the game, but the former Red Wing greats looked more like two band kids whose parents dragged them to the game.  You half expected Holland to march down there, grab them by their collars and growl, “Boys, I’m NOT going to tell you again…”
  • Finally, get used to series splits in the the CCHA. “It’s so competitive top to bottom this year,” Nill said during the second intermission, shaking his head. “It’s really unbelievable.”  The standings prove it: Ohio State (Ohio State?) is in first-place by virtue of a nine-game unbeaten streak, yet the Buckeyes have lost to Michigan State and Notre Dame this year.  Michigan is Michigan — always tough — yet struggling Miami swept the Wolverines last weekend.  Seven points separate Western and Ohio State.
  • So, yeah, buckle up.  This isn’t going to be as easy as everyone thought when the Broncos were ranked fourth.

* My friend Jamie Weir Baldwin at Michigan State reminded me that the CCHA technically counts last night’s game as a tie.  Which is dumb.

Spartan sweep a lesson in pest control

Brett Beier/Kalamazoo Gazette

Have you ever watched an ant buzz along the baseboard of your bathroom? Down the stretch it goes, its little legs scrambling freely until the
bathtub closes in on the left to form a sudden dead end.  The ant
pauses, backs up, circles, and tries again.  Nothing.  Trapped.
It could go left — back out into the open –
but that’s dangerous and clogged with
foot traffic.
 So it tries the perimeter
again.  And the bathtub steers
it right again 
until there’s
no more room
 to run.

(DUMP IN)

Anyone looking for an answer for why Michigan State swept the soon-to-be-lower-than-fifth-ranked Broncos this weekend need look no further than the neutral zone,
which the Spartans remodeled to their specifications again during a 4-2 victory
Saturday that brought BroncoLand back
to reality.

(BODYCHECK, TURNOVER)

State drywalled a diagonal line of defense from blue line to blue line that forced the Broncos along the perimeter 
and pinched
them off at the far blue-line point of attack. Like the
mighty ants that could, WMU’s forwards 
scrambled
up the boards with the puck over and over, trying
to out-skate the green tidal wave.  But on the
rare occasion a Bronco beat it, he was left
stranded as the Spartans flooded
the zone around him, swallowed
possession of the puck and spit
it back out.
 And when the
Broncos managed decent
scoring chances, 
that big
lug of a Spartan goalie
Will Yanakeff 
guarded
the net like a
drain plug.

(NEXT!)

Now, I don’t know enough about coaching to say Tom Anastos out-coached Andy Murray, but damn Anastos had a pretty rockin’ system.  And his players executed it to perfection.

“We are a team that has to be at 100 percent to have a chance, especially in this league, and this weekend – tonight, especially – we weren’t,” Murray said on WKZO afterwards.

Certainly, Murray probably saw things about his team few others could.  But from an armchair perspective, the Broncos didn’t lack effort (always an easy-to-spot excuse for a loss).  If anything, they might have been too aggressive.  Perhaps they could have been more patient instead of repeatedly trying to ram the puck through the drywall like they were attached to Bubble Hockey skewers?  Then again, when they tried to play a cross-ice game, the Chinese handcuffs just got tighter.

Which begs a question: how the hell was Michigan State 4-4 heading into this weekend?

Parting shots

  • Murray inserted forward Kyle O’Kane into the lineup and he had a brilliant game, capped off by a third-period rebound goal to cut the Spartans’ lead to 3-2 with ten minutes left.
  • Credit freshman forward Justin Kovacs on the play — his ability to rag the puck behind the net with two Spartans draped all over him set up O’Kane’s finish.
  • Broncos goaltender Nick Pisellini made a pair of dazzling stops with the game close, but was wildly out of position on two goals that killed third-period momentum the Broncos built
  • Jake Chelios, the son of you-know-who, has his father’s swagger but not much else.  He was lucky that a holding penalty he committed as O’Kane scored didn’t cost his team, and while he fit into MSU’s system, he certainly didn’t stand out aside from his post-whistle antics.
  • Murray hosts a team dinner at his house today and the team has just a day of practice before traveling to South Bend for a rare Tuesday game against Notre Dame.
  • Former Bronco and current Chicago Blackhawks grinder Jamal Mayers was in attendance — and he’s a big fan of Andy Murray’s.  When WMU was in search of Jeff Blashill’s replacement, Mayers called athletic director Kathy Beauregard and told her if Murray belongs anywhere, it’s in the college game because of motivational tactics like leaving notes for players in their lockers — stuff that might not stick with an NHL ego but can really lift a college kid.

Michigan State 3, WMU 2: Thoughts

Brett Beier/Kalamazoo Gazette

  • After being the underdog in games like this for years, the fifth-ranked Broncos now must realize what it feels like to be hunted.  Michigan State is unranked and has underachieved — and looked like a team with nothing to lose Friday night.  Or are the Spartans really underdogs?  Broncos coach Andy Murray told the Kalamazoo Gazette before Friday’s game:“They’ve got us ranked fairly high, but I’ve yet to determine if we’re ranked that high within our own state because we haven’t played Michigan State yet and we haven’t played Lake Superior State (first-place in the CCHA), we haven’t played Ferris State yet and Notre Dame is pretty close and we haven’t played them.”
  • To Murray’s point, Friday’s loss dropped the Broncos into a three-way tie for third-place with Notre Dame and Ohio State.
  • Shots Friday were 40-16 WMU, but most came from the perimeter.  The Spartans cleared the front of the net well and did not allow the Broncos to pounce on quality second-chances.  More than once, the puck careened off MSU goaltender Will Yanakeff and spun in the crease untouched while MSU defenders used textbook basketball-like boxouts to pin Western’s forwards to the outside.
  • Western shooters also missed the net a lot (perhaps trying to pick corners out of frustration?).
  • Yanakeff, the game’s first star, outplayed Western’s Nick Pisellini — but not just because his pads have more rubber marks.  When it came to timely saves, Yanakeff made them and Pisellini did not.  The Mike Merrifield breakaway five-hole goal with less than three minutes to play in the second period was the backbreaker, both on the scoreboard and in terms of momentum.
  • But let’s not forget WMU forward Chase Balisy triggered it with a neutral-zone turnover.
  • Friday’s attendance: 4,052.  Friday’s attendance at Wings Stadium for the K-Wings and Trenton: 4,088.  Mix in people watching the Red Wings-Oilers on television at home or in bars and tell me Kalamazoo isn’t a hockey town.
  • Post-game quotes can often be trite, cliche and reveal little about what really happened and how a team truly feels.  But at least with Andy Murray we get the truth when his team doesn’t play well, instead of a sugar-coated “Aw, shucks, the boys played hard.”  From the Kalamazoo Gazette:“They beat us on the scoreboard, the most important statistic,” WMU coach Andy Murray said. “They came in with a good game plan. We didn’t play as well as we needed to in certain accountable situations during the game.” … “We made mistakes and the puck ended up in the back of our net. Any time you touch the puck, it could be a game-deciding situation. A few times we didn’t manage the puck very well and didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
  • Credit to Tom Anastos: It was a collective head-scratcher when MSU named the CCHA commissioner head coach this summer.  But Anastos, an accomplished hockey man whom The Sporting News has ranked in the Top 100 most influential hockey people multiple times, clearly knows how to coach.  He beat a veteran NHL head coach with a forecheck that made it look as if there were eight Spartans against five Broncos.  And his presence behind the bench was smooth and confident.
  • Here’s hoping the Broncos go with the home white jerseys again tonight instead of the putrid gold ones.  Are those still around?

Burke among NHL GMs rumored to be in Kalamazoo Nov. 22

Toronto's Brian Burke is among the GMs hot on defenseman Danny DeKeyser's trail.

Update: Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk will be bird-doggin’ from the Lawson press box when WMU and Michigan State do battle tonight.

National Hockey League general managers meet next week in Toronto, where they will likely debate division re-alignment, head shots and that staring competition between Tampa and Philly the other night.

Really, though, GMs should hold their meeting at Lawson Arena on Nov. 22, since so many of them will be there for a rare Tuesday night tilt against Notre Dame.

Why?

Broncos’ sophomore defenseman Danny DeKeyser.

Courtesy: Western Herald

Word has it six to eight NHL GMs will be on the Lawson concourse that night, including Toronto’s Brian Burke and Calgary’s Jay Feaster.

It’s one thing for scouts or hockey operations personnel to follow a kid all over hell to places like Schenectady and Marquette.  That’s their job.  It’s entirely something else – in a word: serious – when the GM physically shows up.

Like the time, back in 2008, when Oilers GM Kevin Lowe popped up in Big Rapids on a Saturday night during a blizzard to watch a playoff game between the Broncos and Ferris State.

Aren’t you supposed to be on Hockey Night in Canada tonight? was one of my many questions for him.  (Out of respect, I did not ask who he was there to see.)

Anyway, DeKeyser is huge (6-3, but needs to add girth) and hockey smart with soft hands.  Watching him skate is a scrumptious experience – he’s smooth and covers a lot of ice with seemingly minimal effort.  He’s also gritty: he led the team in blocked shots last year.

So far this year, he’s plus-five with five points (two power-play goals) in nine games and logs a ton of ice time, most notably last Friday’s 3-2 victory in Ann Arbor when he was on the ice for what seemed like the entire third period as the Michigan Wolverines crashed ashore in waves.

DeKeyser is also 21 years-old, which means he’s not draft-eligible.  Which means it’s a lot easier for NHL clubs to haggle for his services.

It explains why Red Wings general manager Ken Holland invited DeKeyser to the team’s prospects camp in Traverse City this summer – and why Holland, Mike Babcock, Jeff Blashill and Kris Draper were in Ann Arbor last Friday night to watch him.

It also explains why Lightning GM Steve Yzerman took time out of his busy schedule as “Hockey’s new God” to watch practice, speak to the team and pose for Facebook gold photo ops in Kalamazoo a few weeks ago – and why he was in Ann Arbor again last Saturday.  (Let’s not also forget defenseman Luke Witkowski, pretty good in his own right, is also Tampa draft property.)

So Detroit and Tampa are angling hard for DeKeyser, with the Flames also having made multiple visits this season.

And this is where coach Andy Murray gets a taste of the college game.  How does he convince DeKeyser to stay for a third year?