This weekend, the Michigan State hockey team (3-5) will play a home-and-home series, against former CCHA foe Western Michigan (3-5-2). The Spartans are coming off of a bye week, while the Broncos were swept by the Denver Pioneers last weekend. This weekend will feature two programs that have struggled to score consistently for the past two seasons. As has been pointed out before, the Spartans start to this season has been incredibly frustrating offensively, and the Broncos have felt similar frustrations. After scoring the fewest goals in the CCHA last season, (yes someone scored less than MSU) the Broncos have only averaged 2.60 goals per game this season. This weekend presents a chance for both teams to try and break out of their offensive funk and work towards improvement for the conference season.
The Broncos have also struggled with discipline, on top of their scoring struggles. Western Michigan is the second most penalized team in the country, with 32 more penalties taken than the Spartans. Coming off of a bye week, where one can assume the special teams were worked on extensively, the Spartans have a great chance to improve upon their 10.26% power play. The Broncos are only killing 82.8% of their penalties and the man advantage will likely be the key to the weekend for the Spartans. Similar to a struggling football team winning games due to turnovers created, a hockey team can be helped immensely by having a successful power play. The Spartans could see an unexpected boost for the power play, as Matt Berry last season's leading scorer was cleared to practice this week. It is not clear whether Berry or John Draeger (also returning from surgery) will play this weekend, but if they do they could provide a much needed spark.
This weekend's series is the second to last series before the Spartans open up B1G play. After hosting Princeton next weekend, the Spartans will host the top-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers. These next two weekends will be key to establishing a power play, forward lines and gaining confidence for the conference season. These next two weekends also present a chance for Draeger and Berry to get up to game speed before the conference season.
Western Michigan Broncos 3-5-2 overall (2-2 NCHC)
Website: Western Michigan Broncos Hockey
Time: Friday 7:00 P.M. at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing. Will be televised on Fox Sports Detroit. 7:05 P.M. at Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo Saturday. (No TV). Both games can be heard on the Spartan Sports Network.
Coach: Andy Murray is in his third season after taking over for current Grand Rapids Griffins coach Jeff Blashill. Murray continued on the turnaround Blashill had started, by winning the CCHA Tournament title and taking the Broncos to the NCAA tournament his first season. The Broncos regressed last year and were picked to finish last in the NCHC this season by USCHO.com. Murray has a 43-30-16 record at Western and was also an NHL coach for both the LA Kings and St. Louis Blues. He also unfortunately has no awesome catch phrase. #RowTheBoat.
Players To Watch: For all the offensive struggles that the Broncos have had, they do feature some talented forwards who are a season removed from great sophomore campaigns. Seniors Chase Balisy and Shane Berschbach are extremely talented forwards. Balisy, a product of the US Development Program, scored 30+ points in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. After scoring only 25 last year Balisy has eight points in ten games this year. Berschbach is the team leader this season with five goals and eight assists in ten games this season. The Spartans will have to try and get their offense going against a very talented goaltender Frank Slubowski. Slubowski was able to drag his team to a 3rd place season in the CCHA last season despite their anemic offense. He has continued to play strong this season with a 2.75 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.
Series Prediction: The key to this weekend's series will be special teams play for the Spartans. They must take advantage of the Broncos lack of discipline and scoring with the man advantage. The Spartans also must shore up their 53rd ranked penalty kill before the conference season. If Anastos sticks with the goalie rotation he has been going with expect to see Jake Hildebrand in net Friday and Will Yanakeff Saturday. I will say the Spartans win at home Friday 3-2 with a power play goal from Greg Wolfe. With an inexperienced roster traveling to a raucous Lawson Ice Arena on Saturday I expect a series split, make it 3-1 Broncos Saturday.
Around the B1G: It is a light schedule in the B1G this weekend. #5 Michigan will play host to Niagara on Friday and then have the rest of the weekend off. #1 Minnesota will host former WCHA rival Minnesota-Duluth for a Friday-Sunday set. Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State will have the weekend off before B1G play opens next weekend.