|It's been all smiles for Steve Racine as of late.|
Photo: Bill Rapai
The task is daunting--the Broncos have only lost twice at home all season (13-2-3) and Michigan needs to beat them twice in a three-game span. WMU was 3-1-0 in the four games this year, splitting a pair at Yost before sweeping Michigan in Kalamazoo.
Here's the good news, though: Western can't score goals. They rank tied for 51st in the country (out of 59) in offense at 2.31 goals per game. The only teams with a worse offense are Harvard, Army, FYS (snicker), Bemidji, Maine (snicker), SEAWOLF, and Alabama-Huntsville. They're tied in offense with Sacred Heart who damn-near thought about trying to go 0fer this season. All eight of those other teams appear in a list of the 13 worst teams in the country by winning-percentage.
The reason WMU does not, and the reason they rank 8th in winning percentage? Their defense is really fricken good. They rank 3rd in team defense, giving up a stingy 1.92 goals per game. The only teams better? Quinnipiac and Miami, #1 and #3 in the PWR.
Since scoring 8 goals in a series against Michgan back in January, the Broncos have scored 5, 2, 4, 4, and 5 goals in their weekends since. They're 3-3-4 over that stretch. They've scored either 1 or 0 goals in a game in each of their last 4 series, so they've been vulnerable to a stink bomb. Michigan, on the other hand, since scoring just 3 goals while getting swept by the Broncos, has been held below 3 just one time. They've scored 8, 8, 11, 5, 9 in their last five series.
What does that mean? If the offense can put a few pucks in the net, they're going to have a chance to win this series. That's hard-hitting analysis right there, but it's true. WMU is 0-7-1 this year when they give up more than 2 goals, so they really can't outscore teams. The problem is that most teams haven't been able to put many pucks past Slubowski. Michigan only scored six times in four games this year, so easier said than done.
What they can't do is give up the soft goal that plagued them earlier in the year because Frank Slubowski is good enough to not give them back. WMU has only lost two games the entire season when giving up two-or-fewer goals: one in Michigan's 2-0 win at Yost and one in their last outing, a 1-0 loss to FYS. They were, however, taken to overtime on seven different occasions when they gave up two-or-fewer, so the offense doesn't always score enough goals to win even when Slubowski is keeping teams at bay.
I realize that I just told you "If the offense plays well, the defense plays well, and the goaltending plays well, Michigan will have a chance to win this series" and that's as "no crap" as it gets, but the Broncos play a lot of really low-scoring games. Goals in this series are like three-pointers in a basketball game against Wisconsin: They mean a little bit more than they normally do. If you can get to 3, you're going to win.
WMU has two double-digit goal scorers: Senior Dane Walters (12-12--24) and junior Chase Balisy (10-14--24). Those two and freshman defenseman Kenney Morrison (7-12--19) each have six power play goals. They make up the bulk of WMU's middle-of-the-pack power play, which is 28th at 17.8%. It feels like Walters has always killed Michigan, and it turns out he has. He has 7-5--12 in 12 games against the Wolverines. Mike Leone is about a half-point a game guy, but he's averaged more than a point per game against the Wolverines and has averaged a point per game in his postseason career, so he could be a guy to watch as well.
Rearguard Danny DeKeyser is Jacob Trouba's defense "partner" on the All-CCHA First Team. Luke Witkowski made the second team. Neither of those guys have put up huge offensive numbers (15 and 10 points, respectively) so that shows you the respect they have around the league as solid defensive defensemen.
Walters, their leading scorer, is also up for the CCHA Best Defensive Forward honors. DeKeyser is up for Best Defensive Defenseman (an award he won last season), and Morrison is up for Best Offensive Defenseman, which is totally going to Trouba.
In net, it's been The Big Slubowski all the way. The CCHA Second Team goalie has earned every decision this season and has yielded only 87 minutes of playing time to his backup. He has a 1.85 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. Only two guys have played more minutes this year. Slubowski is 4-2 with a 2.01/.924 against Michigan in his career.
Western Michigan has eliminated Michigan from the CCHA Tournament the past two seasons, but their wins in Kalamazoo this year were the first times they had beaten Michigan at Lawson since 2003, so the Wolverines are no strangers to winning in that building.
On the Michigan side, Kevin Lynch is the guy to have a huge weekend. He has 12 points in 12 games against the Broncos and we know how he does in big games. Nieves and Copp each had 3 points in four games this year. No Wolverine aside from Lynch has scored more than twice against WMU.
Friday night's game will air on FSN Detroit. Saturday and Sunday (if necessary) will be streamed on WMU's pay-per-view website.
Not gonna lie, I like Michigan's chances. I'll take the Wolverines in 3.