The Minnesota Gophers will try and get further in the NCAA Tournament then they have since 2014 when they take on the #1 seed Western Michigan Broncos in the Worcester Region Final of the NCAA Tournament. The winner will advance to the NCAA Frozen Four where they will face Minnesota State in one national semifinal on April 7th in Boston. But Minnesota was in this position a season ago and fell to Minnesota State in the region final. They do not want to repeat that fate again, but it will take another compete effort to shut down the nation’s leading scorer and put enough goals in the net themselves.
Minnesota advanced with a 4-3 overtime win over UMass when Ben Meyers took a nice feed from Aaron Hugelin and put the puck top shelf over Minutemen goalie Matt Murray to get the win. Western Michigan advanced 2-1 in overtime over Northeastern on a goal that was originally ruled no goal on the ice but was changed upon review to give the Broncos the win. It was Western’s first ever NCAA Tournament victory after six previous losses.
Western Michigan earned the #1 seed in the region after finishing third in the pairwise rankings. They finished the regular season 25-11-1 and finished in third place in the NCHC behind Denver and North Dakota. They then advanced to the NCHC Championship game before falling 3-0 to Minnesota-Duluth. They did have a very good non-conference schedule against several quality opponents. The Broncos went 9-6-1 against common opponents with the Gophers this season. They went 2-2 in the NCHC against both North Dakota and UMD and went 2-1-1 against St. Cloud State. Against Big Ten teams Western Michigan defeated both Ohio State and Michigan State and split a home and home series with Michigan with the road team winning each game. Famously the Wolverines and Broncos were set to face off again in the Great Lakes Invitational in December but the game was called off by Michigan due to “health and safety” reasons which ended up being that Michigan just didn’t want to play as e-mails a month earlier showed.
The Broncos bring in a high powered offensive attack. They have four players with 30 or more points including the nation’s leading goal scorer in Ethen Frank. Frank has 26 goals and is set up by the points leader for WMU Drew Worrad who has 45 points on the season with 36 coming on assists. The Broncos have a pair of highly talented offensive defensemen in Ronnie Attard and Michael Joyaux who have 36 and 32 points respectively. Attard’s 36, coming on 13 goals and 23 assists, are the second-most in the nation by a defenseman and the Broncos are the only program in the nation with more than one 30-plus point producing defenseman.
Western Michigan also has one of the hottest players in the nation in Luke Grainger who in the postseason alone has four goals and an assist including the game winning goal over Northeastern.
In goal Minnesota will need to try and solve junior Brandon Bussi. Bussi has starred every game for the Broncos this season and has a 2.56 goals against average and a .911 save percentage. He made 30 saves in the win over Northeastern.
Minnesota will need to try and get more offense from the line of Sammy Walker, Blake McLaughlin and Bryce Brodzinski. Their line was held off of the scoresheet against UMass with all of Minnesota’s offense coming from the Meyers, Mathew Knies, and Hugelin line and the Jaxon Nelson, Tristan Broz, Rhett Pitlick line. The chances are that Sunday’s game may be more of an offensive back and forth type of game rather than the tight defensive game, and if the Gophers want to win a shootout they are going to need scoring across their lineup.
Also key will be a good game for Justen Close, and the ability to clear rebounds around him. The Minutemen’s last two goals were a result of rebounds Close gave up that he could not find—and Western will not be afraid to score the same way. Minnesota must clean the puck out and Close must do a better job of freezing the initial save rather than leaving a juicy rebound for a second chance.
If Minnesota plays their game like they did in the third period and overtime against UMass, then Minnesota has a very good chance to advance. But they need to avoid the let downs tat have plagued them at times the last few games. Sleepwalking against a team like Western Michigan for even a period may but the Gophers into a hole they can not get themselves out of.
They have what they need. They can play like they need to play. They can win. PJ Fleck is on our side. SkI-U-Mah!
Offense: 3.62 goals per game (5th in the nation)
Defense: 2.32 goals allowed per game (13th)
Powerplay 20.87% (23rd)
Penalty Kill: 84.54% (13th)
Western Michigan Broncos:
Offense: 3.63 goals per game (4th)
Defense: 2.58 goals allowed per game (20th)
Power play: 25% (10th)
Penalty Kill:82.24% (24th)
HOW TO WATCH—NCAA WORCESTER REGION FINAL
#2 Minnesota Gophers vs #1 Western Michigan Broncos
Where: DCU Center, Worcester, Mass.
When: 3 PM Sunday
Radio: 1130 AM/103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio