Slow to Start Dooms WMU
Broncos Still Without NCAA Tournament Win
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. All year long, this is the goal. Every win gets you a step closer. Every loss makes the remaining games that much more important.
Even the worst teams and struggling programs have dreams of a national championship. When Western Michigan hired Andy Murray ahead of the 2011-12 season, the school made its intentions pretty clear following the sudden departure of Jeff Blashill. It wanted to build on Blashill's progress and thrust itself into those conversations. In many ways, Murray has made the Broncos' the contenders it hoped to be.
Friday's East Regional semifinal was Western Michigan's chance.
After a 22-10-5 season, the Broncos headed to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff last weekend and promptly dropped both of their games. The impressive regular season assured them a chance, even still, to do something no other Western Michigan team had ever done — win an NCAA tournament game and hope for something greater.
The Broncos fell to 0-7 all time in the NCAA tournament, losing to Air Force, 5-4, at Dunkin Donuts Center. It was WMU's first tournament appearance since 2012 when it lost, 3-1, to North Dakota.
Despite waiting for so long for this opportunity to earn the school's first win, the Broncos fell flat. Air Force's leading scorer Jordan Himley put the Falcons on the board just 56 seconds into the game.
WMU never tied the game.
"We did not get out of the gates the way we wanted to and that was our emphasis, to be very good at the start and that did not happen for us," Murray said. "It's disappointing, you feel for your seniors that played their last college hockey game."
Air Force doubled its lead at 11:02 of the first period. The teams traded goals throughout.
In the end, Western Michigan finished on a sour note. Frederik Tiffels' second goal of the night brought WMU within one with 1:59 left. It wouldn't get any closer. Wade Allison's major penalty with 1:13 left in regulation wiped out a possible 6 on 5 with Ben Blacker pulled for an extra skater.
The poor start undid the Broncos, and they never recovered. Even with the late comeback attempt, the poor opening stood out. After the game, they didn't have answers.
"We needed to be a better team and credit to Air Force, but we needed to come out quite harder than that and just be a better team," WMU junior Scott Moldenhauer said after the game.
"I can't tell why (it happened) right now," Tiffels said. "We talked about it over the last couple of days. It's always the same emphasis. We just didn't get it done."
College hockey teams are often blamed or credited for the failures or successes of the groups that came before them. Inevitably, this year's WMU team came into the game aware that previous Broncos hadn't won an NCAA game.
"None of these players were on those teams, so we just wanted to win a hockey game here for our school and for our seniors," Murray said. "We got a great following back in Michigan as you know, and we were just trying to win a hockey game here. So I don't think our guys even thought about that.
"There were a lot of tears shed in there, and we all feel that we let our school down here. They battled all year. It's just disappointing that it ends like this."
They didn't play for those teams. They were on this one, though, and the story was just the same.
Ultimately, this season's Western Michigan team will be rememembered as a group that helped pull the program forward. A collection of players that combined some high-level skill with reliable goaltending and Murray's coaching. He's certainly attracted high-end talent to Kalamazoo in his time. Allison is a second-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers. Other high-end players are coming in time or already in place.
Things are getting better for Western Michigan. The Broncos are good enough to continue to challenge in the NCHC. They'll be back in the NCAA tournament soon, seeking the program's first win and good enough to compete for something more.
The 2016-17 team may not have got that win, but it contributed to the cause. And Western Michigan is better for it.