Extreme Makeover: Hockey edition

Dane Walters (courtesy USCHO.com)

Brett Beebe, Nick Pisellini, Mike Leone, Dane Walters, Ben Miller, Luke Witkowski, Trevor Elias and Ben Warda were skating their darkened, departed senior laps Saturday night when a friend turned to me.

“These guys didn’t sign up for this.”

What he meant was, did these seniors ever, in their wildest dreams, imagine two coaching changes in three years and an almost instant rise to success that now has them playing for a top-ten program led by a veteran NHL coach whose goals – legitimate goals – are to win the CCHA and challenge for an NCAA title?

The Broncos are all about forward momentum these days. But considering this weekend’s double-header against Notre Dame were the final regular-season CCHA games ever in Kalamazoo after nearly 40 years, it seems appropriate to take one more long, good look in the rear view mirror to four years ago.

Back to the era of single-digit win totals.

Back when crisp, tape-to-tape passes through the neutral zone to players in motion were the exception instead of the norm.

Back when an occasional NHL general manager might pop in to see a player, but usually from the visiting team.

Back when victories against Michigan or Notre Dame or Miami were unexpected causes for jubilation, not battles between equals.

Back when some of North America’s most coveted junior prospects wouldn’t even take WMU’s calls.

Back to when Lawson Arena’s dominant in-house color was yellow because the bleachers were empty.

Back when the aforementioned seniors were freshmen (with the exception of Leone) and did not win 28 of the 36 games they played in 2009-10.

Finally, miraculously, Western woke up prior to their sophomore seasons.

Jeff Blashill replaced Jim Culhane as head coach.

Suddenly, the Broncos weren’t just winning games – they were in the NCAA tournament.

Then the Red Wings plucked Blashill out of Kalamazoo. Smiles turned to spooks.

What now?

Andy Murray, that’s what.

Extreme Makeover: Hockey edition.

Boom.

Now?

Ticket scalpers.

Fans standing two rows deep on the concourse, craning their necks over the people in front of them to watch games.

A school that finally put its money and time and voice where it deserved to be all along.

And a senior class — the last class recruited by Culhane — reaping the rewards.

It must be a bit melancholy for Beebe, Pisellini, Miller, Walters, Leone, Witkowski, Elias and Warda to know they’ll soon leave all this.

Then again, it’s better to have won and lost then to never have won at all.

ALONG THE RAIL …

  • In fairness to Culhane and his assistants, Marc Fakler and Scott Robson, they did recruit two of this team’s lynchpins (Witkowski and Elias). And Beebe is just a stand-up guy.
  • Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock attended Friday’s game with his wife and son, Michael, who was on an official WMU recruiting visit. He’s currently a senior at Detroit Catholic Central High School, which turned out NHLers David Moss and Don McSween and former WMU forward Brett John (in addition to Major League Baseball’s Chris Sabo and the author and journalist Bryan Gruley).
  • Most creative play Saturday night: Bronco freshman Josh Pitt, while tangled in a puck scrum along the boards, flipped the blade of his stick onto its toe and, with just one hand on the shaft and his arm extended, stabbed the top of the puck and slid it out of the chaos to an open teammate in the middle of the zone.
  • You can see Pitt’s confidence grow with each game. He goes into the tougher areas of the ice more often and handles the puck with authority. Have to believe there is NHL interest, particularly because of his size and speed. If he develops a scoring touch, look out.
  • Weird as it sounds, the shootout split with Notre Dame this weekend really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The Broncos can still win the CCHA’s regular season with a sweep at Michigan State next weekend and a pair of Miami losses (unlikely), but the bigger picture of the CCHA and NCAA tournaments — the picture that matters — already has WMU in it.
  • In 2003, a guy named Jason Cohen wrote a book called Zamboni Rodeo. If you were at either game this weekend, that title has an entirely different meaning. Prior to the shootouts both nights, Lawson’s usually-precise Zamboni drivers were forced to double-back to fix dry scrape mistakes. Saturday’s scene, where the Zamboni actually went into its garage before being called back onto the ice for another two laps, was one of the most bizarre ever.
  • Speaking of bizarre, the sequence in the second period Saturday when Elias was hauled down on his way to the net during a shorthanded rush was quite the odd turn of events. What could have been a penalty shot and most certainly should have resulted in a man-advantage for WMU actually turned into a Notre Dame power play after referee Marc Wilkins teed up Murray with a bench minor for, shall we say, extending the King’s English.
  • Wilkins never skated over to Murray to give him an explanation, which on the surface seemed cowardly on the part of Wilkins. But this isn’t the first time Murray has chewed on a referee (and been bitten for it), and you have to wonder if Wilkins would have granted an explanation had Murray’s ref-ripping reputation not preceded him.

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?