MAC Hockey Season Review: Western Michigan

The NCAA hockey season is coming to a close, and all three of our teams are done for the season. We look at each of the three teams' seasons as we put a close on what was a fantastic season.

At last we come to our conclusion. It's the final nail in the 2011-12 season. A season full of parody, excitement, ups and downs. The first season (and probable last) where all 3 MAC schools made it to Detroit for the CCHA Championship weekend. The first MAC retention of the Mason Cup (albeit a switch of teams). Just so much fun, that I hate to say goodbye to it. Yet, we must, because next year seems to be just as fun.

Our last post focuses in on Western Michigan, who proved to everyone that last year's run to Detroit and into the NCAA's was no fluke. They got better, but so did the rest of the nation, so they appeared to slightly regress. But appearances can be deceiving. They turned it on late after some mid-season struggles to set Bronco history.

Season Review: The Broncos started off red-hot. They were the 2nd to last team to lose their first game (only Merrimack lasted longer), going 6-0-3 in their first 9 games including a win at the ever tough Yost Ice Arena, home of the Michigan Wolverines. Their 3 ties? At eventual Frozen Four participant Union twice, and at Alaska, where games don't start until 11 local time.

But all good things have to come to an end, and they did. Western would lose their next four games against Michigan, Michigan State (twice), and then #4 Notre Dame. After a tie at home to a #2 ranked ND team (a week later on another Tuesday), the Broncos decided to turn it back on. They swept a home-and-home against #6 Ferris State, and then got 5 of 6 points against Bowling Green, including a hammering of the Falcons at Lawson in the 2nd game.

Over winter break, the Broncos went 1-3 against future NCHC foes St. Cloud State and (then) #1 Minnesota-Duluth. Then after sweeping a soon to be swooning Notre Dame squad, got swept by fellow MAC school Miami in a pair of games that were never really close.

Over the next 4 series, the Broncos would hit a eerie trend: win Friday, lose Saturday. And these weren't to just anyone. The first 3 series in this trend were a home-and-home with last place Bowling Green, and two home series against 10th place Alaska, and Ohio State, who at the time had not won in 2012. The last one came on the road against middle of the pack Lake Superior State, so it wasn't all that bad.

The Broncos almost had a 1st round bye locked up when they faced rival, and #1 in the country, Ferris State in a home-and-home. The Broncos would take a huge 5 points from the Bulldogs, locking up a 2nd place finish (tied for the best ever), and the 3-seed in the CCHA playoffs by virtue of losing the wins tiebreak with Michigan.

Western would sweep LSSU in their 2nd round series, winning convincingly to set-up a rematch with the red-hot Miami team in Detroit. The Broncos pulled another stunner in Detroit, blowing the defending champs away to the tune of 6-2, setting up a rivalry match with Michigan for the CCHA Championship. They won, 3-2, barely holding on, to capture their 2nd Mason Cup, and their first since 1986.

That is where the story should end, but the Broncos also clinched an NCAA berth, their first back-to-back showing in the tournament ever. They took on a tough North Dakota squad in WCHA country: St. Paul, MN. The Broncos fought hard, but could not pull out a victory, ending one of the best Bronco seasons ever.

Season Record: 21-14-6
Conference Record: 14-10-4-4 50 pts
Conference Standing: t-2nd of 11

Departures: Up front, the Broncos lose 5 seniors. Point-wise, the biggest loss will be Greg Squires. He had 19 points this season, and scored his 100th career point in Detroit against Miami. However, the biggest loss of the five will probably be 2-time captain Ian Slater. Slater was the heart and soul of the team, and had a few huge goals in the CCHA playoffs, and a near goal in the NCAA game this year. He and fellow senior Derek Roehl had 15 points each. Kyle O'Kane and J.J. Crew also had 11 points each, meaning the combined season total of the 5 seniors was only 71 points (14.2 pts/player)

So no biggie right? Highly touted NHL prospect Danny Dekeyser said he was staying, and goalies don't leave early, so the Broncos should be fine right? Not quite. Dekeyser stayed, but fellow D-man Matt Tennyson signed a contract with the San Jose Sharks, forgoing his senior year. Tennyson was 3rd on the team in goals, 4th in total points, and the shooter on the famed double one-timer play. He also had the 2nd lowest +/- on the team (-7, only FR Will Kessel was worse), and the double one-timer was saved when last used by MU "back-up" Cody Reichard, so maybe his presence won't be as missed as much as expected.

Key Returnees: Easily you have to look to the top scoring line of Chase Balisy, Shane Berschbach, and Dane Walters as the top returnees. This Bronco team tends to have scoring troubles, so these guys have to carry the load sometimes. Speed demon Trevor Elias returns as well. The freshmen will get more time next year, and the incomers should be pretty good "pro-built" players according to the little information I have. Also, Mike Cichy, a transfer from North Dakota, will be eligible to play next year. He adds an NHL draft pick to the Bronco offense.

The entire D returns as well, minus Tennyson, including the top tandem of Luke Witkowski and All-American Dekeyser. Garrett Haar will have to find a new line-mate, but being an NHL player, and having your pick of 3 good looking freshmen to pick from, I'm sure he wont mind. There is a rumor that D-man Dennis Brown might move to forward (he was 5th in points), leaving his freshman wild card all to his lonesome, but that is still to be seen.

Lastly, the goaltending loses no one. Main man, and Freshman All-American Frank Slubowski should have the top spot, and back-up Nick Pisellini should be a great option to have as a guy to give Slubowksi a breather every now and then. Pise has a career save percentage of .916 (better than Slubowki's actually), a GAA of 2.08 (to Slubowski's 2.03), and a career record of 17-10-7 .603 WP (to 17-11-4, .594). However, Pisellini hasn't played much since a knee injury last year, and was a little off this year in just 9 games, going 4-3-2. The Broncos also have a good goalie in Kris Moore waiting in the wings.

2012-13 Outlook: It's hard to predict how the Broncos will look next year. It sounds like they are bringing in a lot of talent, and will be making a stingy defense even better next year by returning almost everyone. The big thing though is how the team plays without their heart and soul in Slater. I think someone steps up, and this team is so close that I don't see them falling far off. They will pick each other up, and be fine once we find that replacement.

The offense is a huge question mark beyond the front line. No one produced this year beyond that front line and those seniors. The will-be sophomores, incoming freshmen, and Cichy will all fight for the other 5-6 spots. Mike Leone, Kessel, and Elias should all have a spot. Cichy and Brett Beebe will probably have a spot as well, leaving the other 4 spots up in the air for grabs. Depending on whether the Brown rumor is true, that would take a forward spot away, but open a D spot, where there was 5 main guys, and a freshman wild card all year. The Francis and Oesterle should both have spots, if they can beat the incomers.

In net, I have no worries as a fan. The Bronco success will lie on the offense. It will determine whether the Broncos are a good team, or a great one. This defense is heralded as one of the toughest ones in the nation, and the Slubowski-Pise combo is scary good. The Broncos will have one last season to make a statement on recruits before heading to the death trap that is the NCHC (yeah, I used the same statement for Miami, but there has to be a bottom team in that conference, and besides St. Cloud State, there is currently none of the other 7. Someone has to join them, and Nebraska-Omaha, the current state of Miami, and WMU are the front-runners). Western needs a great showing, and probably an NCAA win to help send their program to the top level. They should finish near the top again, as long as they don't lose any more players or coaches over the off-season.

______________________________________________________________________________________________

So the reason this was so late is because I was allowing my brain trust to help me pick my All-MAC teams. Unfortunately, with this being the last 2 weeks of classes her at WMU, things are a little hectic and things fell through. Nevertheless, here are my personal All-MAC teams for the 2011-12 season.

First Team
G - Frank Slubowski (WMU)
D - Danny Dekeyser (WMU)
D - Luke Witkowski (WMU)
F - Reilly Smith (MU)
F - Austin Czarnik (MU)
F - Chase Balisy (WMU)

Second Team
G - Connor Knapp (MU)
D - Chris Wideman (MU)
D - Matt Tennyson (WMU)
F - Dane Walters (WMU)
F - Ryan Carpenter (BGSU)
F - Shane Berschbach (WMU)

Honorable Mentions
Jimmy Mullin (F, MU), Andrew "The Hamburglar" Hammond (G, BGSU), Cameron Schilling (D, MU), Garrett Haar (D, WMU), Will Weber (D, MU), Cam Wojtala (F, BGSU)

We'll see you in October for hockey coverage again, thank you for coming along for the first full ride of hockey on Hustle Belt. Until then, stay here for any breaking news, or other MACtion going on.

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