Western Michigan coach Andy Murray knows Omaha counterpart Dean Blais as well as anyone in hockey. So, too, does Murray’s son, Brady.
Brady Murray played for North Dakota from 2003 to 2005 before signing with a professional hockey team in Switzerland. His first season at UND, a 30-win one, was Blais’ 10th and final campaign as the Fighting Sioux’s bench boss.
On Friday in Kalamazoo, Mich., Blais and Andy Murray will find themselves on opposing benches as third-seeded WMU and No. 6 seed UNO open their best-of-three NCHC playoff first-round series. They went through something similar recently, with the teams splitting a two-game regular season set in Omaha last month.
Even if they hadn’t played that series that saw WMU outscored by a combined 12-10, Andy Murray still would have a vivid mental picture of how Blais’ teams operate.
“Dean Blais-coached teams always score,” he said. “My son was a forward for him at North Dakota, and when you’re a player playing for him, you know you’re going to get offensive chances.
“He’s a coach that plays his top-end players a lot and certainly accentuates the offensive part of their game. He’s a guy that wants his defense up with the play all the time, and his teams have been known as hard-working, determined teams that come at you.”
In one way, playing away from home to start the postseason actually suits Omaha. The Mavericks went 6-10-2 at their Baxter Arena home this season, including two losses last weekend against Denver. On its travels, however, UNO is 10-5-3, including one neutral-site victory at the start of the season.
Western will have its hands full trying to contain a potent UNO offense that features three key upperclassmen. Forwards Austin Ortega and Tyler Vesel and defenseman Luc Snuggerud combined in the regular season for 42 goals and 109 points.
WMU will also have to try to silence the sixth-best power-play units in the country. To WMU’s credit, the Broncos are only one spot behind, scoring on 22.75 percent of their power-play opportunities.
UNO is more efficient still when playing a man up — 42-for-178, or 23.6 percent — while WMU’s penalty killers (81.4 percent) sit near the middle of the national table, tied for 38th.
Andy Murray addressed that at his news conference earlier this week.
“How do we keep our team out of the penalty box?” he asked, rhetorically. “I think one thing is to respect the opponent’s power play. We’re talking about the best power play in the NCHC, so that in itself should send a clear message to our team: that we’re a lot better when we’re playing even-strength.
“We’ve obviously got a solid power play, as well, but we just have to know you’re rolling the dice when you’re taking too many penalties, and we need to be assertive physically. We are a heavy team and we play hard, and I think, of late, we’ve taken some penalties that we need to avoid.”
He doesn’t have to reach back far to find times when taking penalties has posed problems for the Broncos. Western conceded two power-play goals in the Broncos’ 6-3 home loss last Saturday against Minnesota Duluth.
When WMU visited Omaha Feb. 10-11, the Broncos gave up three power-play goals in a 7-6 series-opening win and two more in the rematch, a 6-3 loss to UNO.
Western will be keen to turn that around this weekend with a spot in the NCHC semifinals on the line. A detailed blueprint for getting that far has been laid out.
“First and foremost, you have to have the puck because when Omaha’s got, I believe, three players with over 30 points on their roster and seven players with over 20, including two defensemen, they generate a lot of offense,” Andy Murray said.
“We felt, in that series, that we played a little bit too much of an open game and it was some river hockey, and obviously we’ve got a much-improved attacking team, as well, but it was back and forth and certainly not from the coaches’ perspective a real solid type of tactical game, something we’ll have to play this weekend against them to be successful.”
Blasi eager for clean playoff slate
In the college hockey postseason, teams that hadn’t previously cut the mustard play away from home in the first round of playoff action. This year, Miami is one of those teams.
Winning only five league games and finishing seventh in the NCHC standings prompted the RedHawks into packing their bags for an opening-round playoff series at No. 2 seed Minnesota Duluth.
Miami remembers UMD well. The teams only met twice in the regular season, but the memories are very fresh.
The RedHawks erased two deficits in the teams’ series opener Feb. 23 in Duluth before UMD eked out a 4-3 win on a late Avery Peterson power-play goal. The following night, Miami escaped Amsoil Arena with two league points after netting a 3-on-3 overtime goal in what officially ended as a 3-3 tie.
Miami’s regular season generally could’ve gone better. The 46th-best offense in the country (2.47 goals per game) often struggled along the way, reflected in the RedHawks’ 9-18-7 overall record.
Miami has lost seven of its last eight games, including two home defeats last weekend against North Dakota, and hasn’t won in regulation since beating Western Michigan 4-3 at home Jan. 28.
That matters less now, however, with the postseason beginning. Prior victories won’t keep teams’ seasons alive now.
“This is playoff time,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “Everybody starts with having to win two games to move on, and we’re looking forward to that.
“Over the last couple of months, I feel like we’ve gotten better in certain areas. I feel like we’ve played some good hockey in stretches and some hockey that was not so good, so it is what it is. Hopefully we’ve learned from that and we get ready to play this weekend.”
Moreover, while what happened between Miami and UMD recently provides a reference point, it won’t be relied upon too much by either team.
“This is a new time now, so whatever you probably saw two weeks ago will be thrown out the window,” Blasi said. “When you play at this time of year, everything is a little bit more intense and a little bit more magnified, so we have to be ready to play our best.
“We know Duluth is going to play their best. They’re a really good hockey team. They’ve been No. 1 or 2 in the country all year long, they’re well-coached, they’ve got a great D corps, great group of forwards and their goaltender’s been really, really good.
“We’ve got to go and play our game and make sure that we do the things that will allow us to stay in the game,” Blasi continued, “and make sure we’re not making decisions that are going to cost us. You’ve got to play a certain way at playoff time and you’ve got to make sure that you’re doing that to the best of your ability.”
As much as anything else, however, Miami will need to be ready for what UMD will throw at the RedHawks. No team is immune to starting games flat, but teams can ill afford to sleepwalk against a UMD squad in position to grab a No. 1 regional seed at the upcoming NCAA tournament.
“I’m a big believer that you make your own breaks by how you compete and how you’re ready to go and your preparation leading up to the weekend, so that’s going to be our focus,” Blasi said. “We’re going to prepare hard, we’re going to pay attention to detail and we’re going to compete, and we’ll see what happens.”
This is my final NCHC column of the season. Candace Horgan, my esteemed league writing partner, will guide you through next week before we begin our NCAA tournament coverage.
Before all that, however, I’d like to take a moment to thank a handful of colleagues, friends and family for their unbelievable support. First off, I cannot thank enough USCHO managing editor Matt Mackinder and executive editor Todd Milewski, whose guidance and patience go beyond what I could possibly ask from either of them.
Thank you to Candace Horgan, who has been fun to work with going back to our days covering the WCHA together. I trust to find her well the traditional undisclosed amount of beer money heading her way for winning our season-long picks contest.
Thank you to all the coaches, players and school and NCHC officials I’ve had the pleasure of working with this season, all of whom help keep my role here fun to have.
Thank you to Lynn Evenson, my unendingly wonderful boss at the Bottineau Courant, for allowing me to indulge in this passion project I began long before I moved to North Dakota three years ago.
Thank you to my parents, Doug and Karen, and brothers Ben and Tim, all of whom I love more than they’ll ever know.
Last but not least, thank you to everyone that visits this website. Without you, we wouldn’t be here.
Players of the week
Offensive player of the week — Griffen Molino, Western Michigan: Offensively, nobody in the NCHC fared better last weekend than Molino. The sophomore forward posted a goal and five assists during Western’s home split against UND.
Defensive player of the week — Tucker Poolman, North Dakota: Poolman showed his offensive prowess last weekend with five points in a road sweep against Miami while also limiting MU to 27 shots on goal for the series. Two goals and three assists against the RedHawks saw Poolman finish the regular season with 28 points.
Rookie of the week — Henrik Borgström, Denver: The Finnish freshman forward scored the game-winning goals in both games of DU’s road sweep last weekend at Omaha. Borgström leads all NCHC rookies this season with 36 points and 21 goals.
Goaltender of the week — Evan Cowley, Denver: In his first start since Jan. 7, Cowley made 28 saves Saturday in the Pioneers’ 3-0 shutout victory. UNO went 0-for-4 on the power play that night.