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Beware of Western Michigan. The second half of the NCHC schedule leaves the UMD Bulldogs in a prominent spot as the main challenger for first-place North Dakota, with Denver moving up as a third threat.
But the Broncos from Western Michigan have gotten their team back ,together. Coach Andy Murray, who said he was missing seven front-line players during a first-half filled with injuries, showed off the full potential of his team last weekend at AMSOIL Arena by bouncing back from an opening loss to tie the Bulldogs 3-3, and gain an extra point with a shootout victory after two overtimes. The game counts as a tie, but it snapped UMD’s 5-game winning streak.
“This is the biggest team I’ve ever seen Duluth have,” said Murray, whose daughter, Sara, was a standout defenseman for Shannon Miller’s UMD championship women’s teams. “They always have good speed, but this year they have size, too. I think this is their best team. I would say that if you’re going to win this league, you’re going to have to beat Duluth.”
North Dakota was upset 6-3 by Nebraska Omaha on Friday, and by winning Friday, UMD pulled to within one point of the lead. But the Fighting Hawks won 4-1 the next night to stand 8-1-1 to UMD’s 7-1-2. Denver has crept up to 5-3-2 after sweeping St. Cloud State, while Miami and Colorado College split. Western Michigan stands 3-5-2, which may not seem impressive for the fourth-place Broncos, but they showed speed, skill, toughness and the grit that Murray’s teams always have.
“And we have 10 of our last 16 league games at home,” said Murray. “We need to finish in the top four and get home ice to have a chance.”
UMD went into last weekend with a tough return to league play, although they got it together by the third period. Justin Richards rushed up the right side and when he got squeezed off, he fed the slot, and freshman Quinn Olson got off a quick shot for a goal and a 1-0 lead.
Two minutes later, Cole Koepke one-timed a Dylan Samberg power-play shot from the right circle, and sophomore Tanner Laderoute tipped it past goaltender Brandon Bussi, the freshman who had been entrusted with the starting job this season. Before the first period ended, Western Michigan countered when Ethen Frank scored with a backhand from the slot after a right-corner face-off win.
In the second period, UMD junior defenseman and offensive sparkplug Scott Perunovich was issued a 5-minute disqualification major for checking from behind, and Paul Was he tied it on the power play at 2-2. Noah Cates scored his UMD-leading 11th goal on a power play midway through the middle period, but Rhett Kingston tied it 3-3 later in the period.
Five minutes into the third period, UMD — which had been outshot 19-7 in the second period — got the kind of goal a rink-rat scores, and in this case, the rink-rat was junior Kobe Roth, from Warroad. Roth got a pass from Laderoute and returned it at the crease, but the puck bounced free, beyond the goalie’s reach, and right on Roth’s stick blade. “There was a ‘D’ man coming at me, so I threw it to Tanner, and the next thing I knew, the puck hit me in the skate,” said Roth. “It was nice, because I was at the crease and the goalie wasn’t there. It was one of the easiest goals I’ve ever scored.”
Up 4-3, it ceased to be a nail-biter when Nick Swaney scored short-handed for a 5-3 lead and Swaney later scored a colorful empty-net goal to make it 6-3 in the final minute. The goal was on a 3-on-1 rush at the empty net, and Swaney laughed when it was suggested that he could have made one more pass back to Noah Cates.
In the second game, Andy Murray gave senior Ben Blacker his first start of the season, after his scoreless relief effort in the last 10 minutes of the Friday game. Blacker made the best of his belated opportunity, stopping 32 shots in what officially became a 3-3 tie. But his Broncos teammates rose to the occasion, too, getting the only goal of the first period from Josh Passolt, and, after Justin Richards tied it at 1:22 of the second, Western scored on Rhett Kingston’s goal 35 seconds later, restoring Western to a 2-1 lead.
The second period ended with a fluke goal, but Passolt wasn’t complaining. He was at the crease when Mattias Samuelsson shot from the left point. The missile deflected off Cole Gallant, then glanced past Hunter Shepard off Passolt’s skate. Passolt is a junior from Hayward, Wis., who said he never was contacted by UMD during his days in the USHL, and his two goals give him three for the season.
Down 3-1, UMD came back when Laderoute converted Jade Miller’s set-up for what resembled a 6-inch putt at the left edge of the crease at 9:11 of the third period. That left the drama up to Perunovich, still the most dynamic playmaker in the league, if not the country. Both teams were short a man when Perunovich put the extra room to good use, racing up the left boards from the point, darting behind the goal and sweeping around on the swiftest wraparound of the season to tuck in a shot at the right post for a 3-3 tie at 11:39.
After two scoreless overtimes, the extra point for a victory was down to a shootout. Two Bulldogs were stopped by Blacker, but Hugh McGing scored on Western’s second try and the Broncos celebrated, while the UMD fans trudged out silently.
“In the handshake line,” said coach Murray, “I got to Perunovich and I said, ‘Would you just leave?’ I’m tired of watching him make plays like that against us.”
Next up for UMD is a series at St. Cloud State, struggling this year while rebuilding, and then it gets serious, with a home series against North Dakota, followed by a trip to Denver. There was speculation that Andy Murray might be getting close to retiring after a colorful career that covers from the NHL to college hockey. He chuckled at the notion, after I suggested I could see no way he’d bet happy if he quit coaching.
“I just signed a new 5-year contract last summer,” he said.