Western Michigan Gains Experience in Defeat
by James Gilligan/CHN Reporter
MINNEAPOLIS Two weeks removed from a split against Minnesota-Duluth in the final weekend of the regular season, Western Michigan (22-11-5) took a 5-2 loss in the rubber match Friday in the NCHC semifinals.
With the loss, the Broncos will have to wait until at least next year to win their first NCHC trophy in program history. However, it’s the experience of a playoff atmosphere, more so than a trophy, that’s most valuable for the Broncos as they approach their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2012.
That bid is already locked up. But there's still something to play for in the third-place game against top-rated Denver on Saturday: WMU can still potentially get a No. 1 seed to the NCAAs.
The Broncos have little playoff experience compared to Frozen Faceoff counterparts Denver, North Dakota or UMD, who have played in the NCAA tournament every season since the last time WMU made it.
While head coach Andy Murray, who was named NCHC Coach of the Year at the conference’s awards banquet Thursday night, aptly noted that his team “came in the front door” to the Frozen Faceoff and is as deserving as any team, the key difference between the Broncos and the other three teams is a lack of playoff experience.
This weekend’s games provide the perfect transition from weekend series to one-and-done play. Plus, it gives WMU a little bit more time to help key forwards Wade Allison and senior captain Sheldon Dries, who both missed Friday’s game with day-to-day injuries.
This postseason inexperience showed at points against UMD, such as in the opening period where the Broncos struggled to break into the Bulldog zone on a 5-on-3 power play in the opening minutes, or when they failed to capitalize on a two-man advantage in the closing minutes.
“We didn’t execute very well, we were not very sharp,” Murray said of the power play.
Broncos freshman goaltending sensation Ben Blacker stopped 18-of-22 shots in his Target Center debut, allowing a pair of first-period rebound goals. While the freshman was steady throughout, he allowed NCHC-leading scorer Alex Iafallo to give UMD a 3-2 lead late in the second period, remaining at the top of the crease rather than going out to cut off the angle.
Blacker was one of 21 rostered Broncos to make their Frozen Faceoff debut Friday night, all of whom will also make their NCAA Tournament debuts next week.
While they struggled at times, the Broncos showed maturity in the loss, twice rallying to tie the game after the Bulldogs took a lead in the first and second periods. Furthermore, after a goal was disallowed in the second period, Western Michigan showed poise by continuing to press, eventually leading to a goal just minutes later.
“You look at the game and it’s 5-2 and you might say it was easy for the Bulldogs, but I don’t think it was easy for them, they got the goals at the right time,” Murray said.
As they look to Saturday's game, the Broncos look to pick up a win as they build momentum for the big dance.
“It’s very important we come back tomorrow and win the hockey game, as it will be important for seeding for the national tournament,” said Murray.