Thursday, December 12, 2013

Andy Murray Enjoying Time Back in School; Bulldogs and Broncos Both Desperate

Andy Murray is an NHL guy by trade, but he's coaching college hockey now, and he's embraced it.

"I thought it (coaching college hockey) would be a great experience, and it hasn't disappointed," the third-year coach told me this week. Murray worked in the NHL from 1988-1995 and again from 1998-2010. He was an assistant in Philadelphia, Minnesota, and Winnipeg before head-coaching stints with the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues.

When Jeff Blashill left after one extraordinary year at Western Michigan to join the Detroit Red Wings coaching staff, WMU hired Murray, who had been let go by the Blues during the 2009-10 season.

"It's different in the sense that you're in charge of these players 24 hours a day," he said. "There's lots of academic meetings and that type of thing you don't have at the pro level. But I enjoy it. I like the recruiting process, and the fact that you can really make an impact on the lives of these young people."

Even before Murray brings his Broncos to Duluth for a series this weekend, he has local ties. His daughter, Sarah, played her college hockey at UMD and was a part of two NCAA title teams under Shannon Miller, whom Andy Murray knew from their time coaching with Team Canada. Two years ago, when UMD played Western Michigan, Andy Murray spoke glowingly of Miller and his daughter's experience playing for UMD.

In two-plus years at Western Michigan, Murray has sure made his mark. The team plays a hard-nosed style, especially in its defensive zone. The message is simple: We want to be absolutely miserable to play against, and the players appear to be buying in.

It's not just making opponents absorb contact to make plays with the puck. They're hard on everyone, they defend well, and they are relentless when they establish a forecheck. WMU defends the transition game well, with defensemen that don't often get out of position, and forwards who work their tails off on the backcheck. There aren't a lot of odd-numbered chances to be had against the Broncos. When you do get one, your reward is having to beat Frank "The Big" Slubowski. Not the best goalie in the country, but a very good one with a hell of a nickname.

They just don't give up much off the rush. UND got a lot of goals from hard work and a tough forecheck last week.

Up front, Shane Berschbach is a point-per-game player having a very good season so far. Justin Kovacs is also off to a strong start, and team captain Chase Balisy is a quality pivot. But I believe Western's depth can be exposed by this UMD team. North Dakota won two one-goal games over Western Michigan last week, largely because UND just doesn't have the depth across its lineup that we're all used to seeing UND have.

(Insert "cab driver" joke here, if you're so inclined.)

The Bulldogs have four lines that can score. Murray agrees.

"When I look at UMD's lineup and their four units, and they're getting production from all of their four units," he said. "A bit of an issue for us is we're not getting a lot of scoring from two units. That puts a lot of pressure on certain players."

Don't be fooled by the standings. These are two good teams that are both capable of winning games this weekend. But I believe UMD has the upper hand, provided it can shake off what happened last week.

"I think the most frustrating part (Saturday) was getting away from our team structure," junior center Caleb Herbert said. "We didn't stick together."

UMD didn't look the same after that bad goal in Friday's loss, and while it's fair to say that such a play can be deflating, it's not fair to put everything that happened after that on the goal. At some point, the Bulldogs needed to regroup and recover, and even given 20 hours after the Friday game ended, UMD just couldn't get back to the way it was playing before SCSU used a fluke shot from center ice to tie the game 2-2.

The Bulldogs have the talent and depth to beat Western Michigan. They need to keep their heads and get quality goaltending to execute the plan and go into break on a high note. Both teams are going to be desperate for wins before taking some time off, and both teams want to get out of the NCHC cellar (tied for seventh with six points, though they are the only teams in the league who haven't played at least eight conference games).

I believe UMD can do well this weekend, but a lot will hinge on forgetting what happened last weekend.

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