All the Broncos needed to do was to win just 1 more game and they would have been the #5 seed and hosting a first round playoff series, most likely against Miami. Unfortunately that didn't happen. Instead the Spartans of Michigan State spoiled senior night at home with a 4-0 shutout of WMU and then ended the regular season with an 8-5 Spartan win in MSU's senior night this past Saturday.
The three most common problems this Bronco team faces regularly haunted them this weekend. On Friday the Bronco squad never found an offensive rhythm and came out flat in the first period. On Saturday the killer was taking ill-timed retaliation penalties that gave the opposition ample opportunity to score goals, and hindered any momentum the Broncos may have built. Both nights had defensive breakdowns for the Broncos who gave up 3 goals in the first period Friday, and then gave up 3 goals in a 2 minute stretch Saturday.
Northern Michigan, who was in a 4-way tie for fifth place in the CCHA with WMU, Notre Dame, and Alaska-Fairbanks took on Notre Dame and split their series earning them the #5 seed on tiebreakers to earn the rematch of the series 2 years ago with Western Michigan. That series 2 years back featured a pair of overtime, thrilling wins for NMU and a WMU win the set a CCHA playoff record with 16 total goals scored.
This year's playoff series is in the Barry Event Center, the venue for NMU's earlier sweep of the Broncos with 5-0 and 5-2 wins that highlighted WMU's offensive struggles and NMU's defensive prowess. Craig Kowalski was stellar in net for the Wildcats that weekend while WMU's only saving grace on offense was a pair of Brent Walton goals.
WMU's season thus far has been one of streaks to say the least. The season has featured multiple 4 and 5 game winning and losing streaks. NMU's season isn't too contrasting with a slow start, an outstanding November, and a roller coaster ride ever since.
NMU has loses on their record against the likes of Bowling Green and Lake Superior which proves anyone can beat anyone on a given weekend. WMU, by contrast, has taken care of the teams they are ‘supposed to beat' while being daunted by some of the elite programs they have faced throughout the season.
Keys for Northern Michigan success are simple. Keep doing the things they do well. Continue their successful power play and penalty kill, along with Kowalski being in top form in goal this weekend. Playing well on their international sized ice sheet is something they must also take advantage of, opening up the game and forcing the Broncos to play great positional defense.
Keys for the Broncos to have success are also simple and achievable. Coach Culhane summed up first key in one word, "discipline." Taking bad penalties is something that has plagued the Broncos all season. Retaliating to referee no-calls, and taking frustration penalties is something that can't happen this weekend if the Broncos have any hope of winning and advancing in the playoffs.
The Broncos did prove that they could play disciplined hockey and win when they beat Notre Dame 4-2 at home and took only a single penalty the entire game. Culhane did mention that the number of penalties and penalty minutes for the Broncos aren't much different than the other programs in the league, but the timing of penalties has killed the team at times.
Another key is shots on goal. The Broncos have a ton of offensive talent and when they outshoot, or even just get 30 or more shots on net they are a tough team to beat. That offensive prowess has been inconsistent this season, but when they're hot they are one of the best scoring teams in the CCHA.
Jim Culhane did mention another key to success this weekend, "goaltending, we need good play out of our goaltending." Both Scott Foster and Mike Mantua have had spurts of outstanding play this season, but both have also struggled at times. The freshman and junior have tag teamed all season, and the Broncos need one of them to step up and play like they have in one of their hot streaks again this weekend.
The Broncos spent part of this week practicing at Twin Star Arena in Portage Michigan to help adjust to the larger ice at NMU. Twin Star features the same size ice surface the NMU does and Culhane is hopeful that, "practicing on the big sheet is going to help [WMU]. We had success on the big sheet winning at Alaska-Fairbanks."
One area the Broncos have improved on all season is defensive play. Even walk-on Rob Yamashita has stepped up and played in several of the most recent games, along with Josh Akright and Brian Pasko. Freshmen Reid Yantzi and Andrew Dwyer, who played a lot early in the season, have sat out many recent games while the upperclassmen step up their game and play better defense. "Robbie's earned it," Culhane said of Yamashita's playing time. "He's practiced better… everything we do here is evaluation based on performance in games and in practice. He's battled all year long."
The games this weekend are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (if necessary), March 14, 15, and 16 with all face-offs at 7:05pm. The games can be heard on the Bronco Hockey Radio Network (100.9fm Allegan, 98.5fm Kalamazoo, 92.1fm Niles/ South Bend, 1570am Grand Rapids), and on Internet broadcast at www.wmubroncos.com.
The winner of this series advances to the CCHA Super Six at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on March 20, 21, and 22. The NCAA selection committee will select the field of 16 teams for the NCAA tournament on Sunday March 23.
This past week the CCHA has announced many of this season's awards. Vince Bellissimo was named to the CCHA All-Rookie team, Dave Cousineau to the All-Academic team. Cousineau and Dana Lattery both received honorable mention recognition in the CCHA All-Conference teams. The remaining CCHA awards will be announced at the Awards Banquet on Wednesday March 19.
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