This week we're previewing the three MAC schools with hockey programs and their upcoming seasons. Today's edition features the Western Michigan Broncos. If you missed part II on Bowling Green, click here. If you missed part I on the Miami RedHawks, click here.
At last, we come to the finale. We jumped from top to bottom with the first two schools, so lets see where high-expectations will land the Broncos this year.
Western comes into this season after an incredible season last year, going 19-13-10 (10-9-9 with 5 OT wins in CCHA play) in Jeff Blashill's first year as coach. Highlights included a 14-game unbeaten streak, a trip to Detroit, a win in the CCHA semifinals over Michigan (propelling them to their first CCHA Title game in 25 years), and an NCAA appearance for the first time in 17 years. They were 4.5 minutes from winning their first NCAA tournament game ever over #5 ranked Denver, before the Pioneers stormed back to tie the game with 2 1/2 minutes to go, then winning the game in Double OT. All this happened after an 8-20-8 season in 2009-10.
The off-season brought its own whirlwind for the Broncos. Blashill accepted a job offer to be an assistant for the Detroit Red Wings, the Broncos accepted an invitation to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and Western announced their 3rd head coach in as many years with long-time NHL coach Andy Murray (not the tennis player) taking the helm.
Now the Broncos enter the 2011-12 season with high expectations, and only two seasons to build into a full-time power before they enter the tough task of competing in the National. We look at the Broncos in depth beyond the jump.
Last year, the Broncos were led by Max Campbell in points with 35 (18 g, 17 a). He has graduated, so but the Broncos have a boat-load of young talent behind him. Led by sophomore Chase Balisy (30 points, 12 g, 18 a), this group hopes to improve on last year's learning experience, and turn it into a productive season.
Balisy is closely followed by Shane Berschbach (29 points) and Greg Squires (28 p), so there is some good depth to the first two lines. The key is to turn the points into goals, as Campbell led the team by 6, and had twice as many goals as Berschbach who was 3rd. Under Murray's tutelage, it'll be interesting to see if this happens.
One unsung hero for the Broncos is Captain Ian Slater. A senior this year, he is the heart and soul of this team, and is constantly given praise for his leadership on and off the ice.
Western builds on a great line core led by sophomore Danny DeKeyser and junior Luke Witkowski. They picked up a good recruit in Garrett Haar, who was, as the Washington Capitals put it, their "most pleasant surprise in camp." Haar changed his commitment after a shake-up at Northeastern.
The key for the defense will be how well the netminder is this year. Gone is Jerry Kuhn and his insane 2nd half of last season. Enter Nick Pisellini. Pisellini went 7-5-4 last year with a 2.35 GAA and 90.1% save percentage. He struggled late in the first half of the season, before exiting due to injury, and never really saw the ice due to Kuhn playing out of his mind.
Pisellini was growing fame before his exit however, and it will be interesting to see how he plays this year knowing that he could be pulled if he under-performs. This is a widely overlooked factor of the Broncos in my mind, but he shouldn't do too bad.
I'll try not to include my bias here. Western has huge expectations this year. Andy Murray knows what he has to do, that being get to the Detroit again, and the NCAA's. A first-round win would also be nice to help prove he's worth his price. Western is still quite young and inexperienced to contend for a National Title, or even the CCHA Title. This is not just the players, but the coach too. This year is a learning year for all, but still must have good results.
The Broncos are vying for the 3-seed in the CCHA, and will fight Michigan (almost literally) for it. I see Western getting back to Detroit, and a repeat trip to the NCAA's, but probably as a 3-seed again. They would need to draw an easier 2-seed than Denver to get out of the first round, so I won't give them the win there. This should set the stage for a great year for the Broncos in the final year of the CCHA in 2012-13.
Well that wraps it up for the hockey previews. Good luck to all our MAC teams