Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Rebuilding Western Michigan Team Treks North

The Nanooks finally get back on the ice in a series after what will be a 26 day hiatus against a Western Michigan team that is being overhauled by incoming head coach Jeff Blashill. Don't be fooled, this is not the same team you saw last March. This series will be a fight for six points between two pretty evenly matched teams.

Statistics aside, the Broncos do have a slight edge coming into this series in terms of momentum, coming off a huge two game sweep against then 12th-ranked Union. Nanook fans should be quite familiar with the Dutchmen and their defensive play, but the Broncos ground it out taking both games by a collective score of 5-2. In addition, Western Michigan's break is a full week shorter, if that matters.

The Broncos are lead in scoring by senior center Max Campbell (9-9-18) and two dynamic freshmen in Chase Balisy and Shane Berschbach, each with 14 points. Their offense takes care of the puck in the offensive zone and put a lot of shots on net. Their offense is averaging 31.8 shots on goal per game, but its not the first shot they get you with, its the second, and the third. Rebound control will be a key to this series for Scott Greenham and the Nanooks defense.

Speaking of defense, Western's got a pretty good one, too; backstopped by a solid goaltender in Nick Pisellini, a sophomore who played his juniors with the Chicago Steel in the USHL. Nick sat behind Riley Gill list year and studied the position and the college game, and with the defense now built around him, the Broncos have given up just 2.45 goals per game this season, that's a pretty solid improvement from last year at 2.89. But, there is a twist. The 'Nooks may not even see Pisellini this weekend, as backup Jerry Kuhn has been hot as of late. The senior netminder received kudos from the CCHA head office as an honorable mention for player of the month for keeping the Union Dutchmen in check in their last series, allowing two goals in 43 shots during the sweep, good for a .953 save percentage against a top 3 scoring offense averaging 4.06 goals per game coming into that series. Kuhn is 3-1 as a starter, and has played rather solidly in relief of Pisellini, who has had some rough games coupled with an injury as of late. Blashill has gone on record to say that Pisellini would return after the break, but that was before Kuhn's role in the "Dutchmen Domination". Who will get the start? I suppose we'll find out Friday.

Stepping back from this weekend's series a bit, let's take a look at what incoming head coach Jeff Blashill has done. After departing a dominant program in Miami under Enrico Blasi, Jeff has come to the Broncos' rescue. In just his first season, he's already surpassed the win total from a year ago, with the other half of the season yet to be played. With largely the same roster, it all comes down to schemes and strategies. Now I haven't had a chance to see a full game of theirs yet, just a few highlights of their goals, but I can tell you that they play a lot tighter against the opposing defense and like I said before, get pucks and bodies on the net and try to punch it in. Blashill has indubitably improved their defense, but how his strategy differs from the mid zone collapsing defense from a year ago, I don't know. If I ask him, I wonder what kind of answer I would get... But anyway, another point of improvement worth noting is their power play. 34.6% of Western's total goal production has come with a man advantage, and they're fairly efficient at converting their opportunities, too.

This is going to be at least 120 minutes of solid hockey, battling for 6 points. Both teams are pretty evenly matched, statistically. But I'll give the advantage to the 'Nooks on home ice. Last season, the 'Nooks went 0-1-1-1 in Kalamazoo and will be looking to take more than just 2 out of 6 points this time around.

All said and done, the 'Nooks will take care of business. In a three way tie for fourth, and four points removed from third-place Miami, the guys need to hit the ground running out of the gate to start the second half.

Nanooks sweep, 2-0 & 3-1 respectively.

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