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December 6, 2013 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

North Dakota, Western Michigan Set for Lawson Weekend

by Dave Starman/Columnist

North Dakota arrived at Western Michigan's Lawson arena Thursday and looked around the rink. A couple of them had played here before but 95 percent of the players and staff had never been here. A couple of the players pointed across the way from where they were standing and said “that’s where they sit, the Lawson Lunatics.”

Seeing a team’s first visit to an opposing building is always unique. For the players themselves, you could see the air of excitement to be somewhere they had not been before, a chance to create the opening chapter in what could become a really good rivalry. WMU and North Dakota play different styles but both are facing the same challenge right now —finding consistency and finding scoring. Staying healthy wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

North Dakota, always strong and skilled up front and big on the back line, has what Dave Hakstol told us earlier this season was a lighter team than he is used to having. By lighter I don’t think he meant the amount of bodies available to him; North Dakota has been bitten by the flu bug and the injury bug. The influx of new players and the loss of key guys for stretches of time, like Mark MacMillan and Colten St. Clair, have hurt the team in its quest for consistency.  Having extra defensemen dress as forwards has been commonplace in November for Hakstol, who two years ago was in a situation where he didn’t have enough healthy bodies to scratch anyone. It was 18-and-2 or 17-and-2 to fill out the roster without a spare.

NoDak has had two interesting weekends leading to this one. It played two non conference series, one at BU and one home against St. Lawrence. It lost at BU on a Friday night, then took 58 shots in a 3-3 tie Saturday. The tie game was the best it had played since a 4-2 win at Miami on Oct. 18 in the debut game of the NCHC that was seen on CBSSN.

North Dakota came home and was flat in a 5-2 loss, a performance that resulted in a post-game players only meeting.  Led by senior defenseman Dillon Simpson, UND got it all on the table behind closed doors and followed those words with actions as it beat St. Lawrence, 3-2, the following night.

Western Michigan comes in having won 3 of 4 and two of those wins by shutout (2-0 vs MSU and 1-0 over UAH). The Broncos are getting terrific goaltending from veteran Frank Slubowski and rookie Lucas Hafner. They are methodical in their approach and are in a rebuilding phase on the backline with the loss of four tremendous defensemen in recent years.  The Red Wings beat Toronto in the Danny Dekeyser sweepstakes and he left after his junior year. Tampa draft Luke Witkowski graduated and there went the No. 1 pair. Garrett Harr, a Caps pick and dynamic NCAA player, left school earlier this semester and they are a year removed from Matt Tennyson departing for the San Jose Sharks. That is a lot of talent to replace.

Led by sophomore defenseman Kenney Morrison, junior Jordan Oesterle and senior Dennis Brown the Broncos have a three headed monster that can skate, create offense, and run a power play. Brown has great hands and good hockey sense, Oesterle can control a game with his feet and confidence and Morrison can break the plexiglass with his shot that is undoubtedly the best in the NCAA.

Coming out of the film room a couple of things emerged as themes.

First for North Dakota. Its relentless style of play is there but hasn’t been there full time. In two of the last three games, it has seen a return and the players know it. A few told me Thursday they thought the past two Saturday games were really good for the team. They also said that those two games would have to be their worst two if they intend to contend in the NCHC where there are no easy games.

Stephane Pattyn, “The General”, is looking more like that grunt sergeant who by sheer will leads his troops through the enemy lines and overtakes their position. He has been great on the forecheck, winning his 1-v-1 battles and scoring.  In a not so quiet way on the ice, he is developing into the emotional leader of the group. Under the radar is Andrew Panzarella. A defenseman by trade, he has been playing up front and his speed and hand skills are proving to be a bonus for North Dakota. Panzarella won’t garner headlines or attention but under the radar he is proving to be a dependable player up front.

For Western Michigan the emergence of Shane Berschbach has been hard to miss. Berschbach spent the summer getting into elite level hockey shape. He gained close to 20 pounds and adopted the lifestyle of someone who wanted to be the best player on his team. Bad habits are out and he has become a leader in the room and away from the rink for the freshman class. Chase Balisy provides playmaking and scoring ability and tremendous hockey sense.

This is a game that will be physical and in your face for 60 minutes. The intimate setting of Lawson Arena and the fans being right on top of you will be a great thing for North Dakota, which is used to being hated in visiting arenas. The energy of the building should play a factor.

Western Michigan played Nodak in the West Regional Final in coach Andy Murray’s first year with the Broncos (I was the analyst on the game). The Broncos players who are still here talked about how that game was a growing experience. In period one, they admired North Dakota too much and didn’t get much going. After that period they realized they could play with NoDak and took it to them. There was a disputed no-goal call against Western, which lost 3-1. It was a game that helped turn the program around as they proved to themselves they could skate with the upper echelon NCAA teams.  It was also a gutsy effort by a depleted North Dakota squad that had just come off an emotional weekend at the WCHA Final Five.

One thing to watch for Friday night — the hellacious North Dakota forecheck against the ability of Western Michigan to get out of its own end efficiently and transition to offense. These two elements stood out on film. WMU, using good movement and down low puck support, has shown it can get out of its own end quickly. Slubowski and his puck handling ability are a factor here and he is not predictable when he has the puck on his stick.

For North Dakota, getting in hard as they like to do will be important. They will be focused on eliminating WMU’s ability to start offense from the DZ like they can do. They will also be looking to continue to use their forecheck as an offensive weapon to create quick chances.

This sets up to be a terrific game. We look forward to calling it.

The CBS Sports Network gets back to NCHC play Friday night with North Dakota visiting the Lawson Lunatics and their team, the Western Michigan University Broncos. Game time is 7:30 p.m. The veteran team of Ben Holden, Dave Starman and Shireen Saski Starman on the call. You can follow the crew on twitter at @benholdenpxp, @DStarmanHockey and @Shireen Rinkside.

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