This Week in the NCHC: Western Michigan looking to secure home ice for NCHC playoffs

2018 Jan. 12 The St.Cloud State University Huskies host Western Michigan in a NCHC matchup at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, MN (Bradley K. Olson)
Before topping Miami last Saturday night, Western Michigan had lost five of six in NCHC play (photo: Bradley K. Olson).
With a month left in the regular season and three NCHC standings points separating third-place Western Michigan from North Dakota in fifth, WMU will take points wherever it can get them to try and stay in a home-ice spot.That is by no means guaranteed, though, especially with Western having lost five of its last seven games. The fifth loss came Friday in Oxford, Ohio, when the Broncos conceded three second-period goals in a 4-2 loss to Miami.Changes had to be made Saturday if WMU was to snap its four-game losing streak and keep Miami from taking three of the teams’ four regular-season meetings. Broncos coach Andy Murray jumbled his lines for the rematch – notably moving his first-line wingers from Friday to the bottom six – and got the response he wanted during a 3-2 Broncos win.Miami opened the scoring with 38 seconds left in the first period before Carter Johnson made it 2-0 1:46 into the second. After that, the middle frame belonged to Western.Freshman forward Ethen Frank flourished on a reimagined second line, scoring twice on assists from new linemates Austin Rueschhoff and Dawson DiPietro before third-line winger Lawton Courtnall – down from the first line to the third – scored the game-winner late in the period on a nifty individual effort. After creating a turnover in the Broncos’ zone, he raced down the ice and scored glove-side past Miami goaltender Ryan Larkin.Miami then outshot WMU 8-0 in the final 20 minutes. Unfortunately for the RedHawks, Broncos goaltender Ben Blacker (26 saves) was up to the task and picked up the win after sitting out of Friday’s series opener.Blacker and Austin Cain had also split the previous weekend’s series at Omaha, where WMU lost twice by a combined 13-5. The Broncos actually brought three goalies to Nebraska, and Blacker was relieved by Trevor Gorsuch midway through a 7-3 loss on Jan. 27.Murray noted this week, however, that Blacker performed well in practice after the Omaha trip and, when called upon Saturday, kept the game retrievable.The skaters in front of Blacker also stepped up in what could end up being a difference-maker in whether WMU stays home for the first round of the NCHC playoffs or hits the road.“We believed in the lineup we had Friday night, and as I tell our players, normally on game nights, the game’s at 7 o’clock and I sign that sheet with the official scorer about 6:10, and when I sign it, I trust every single name that I’ve put on the list there that’s going to be in the lineup that night,” Murray said.“We didn’t like our competitiveness of our team in the second period of the first game in Miami, and we talked about that trust and how we put a lot of faith in our players and you’re getting a great opportunity to play in a good program and we expect more. It was there a lot more on Saturday night than it was Friday.”

Berry excited for Gardner’s return from injury

After netting a goal and two assists in a 7-0 home win over Omaha on Jan. 6, North Dakota alternate captain Rhett Gardner picked up a lower-body injury in the Fighting Hawks’ next game six days later at Bemidji State.UND won 5-1 that night. The Hawks are 0-2-3 since then.They’ll get Gardner back this weekend, though, for an important home series against Colorado College. UND head coach Brad Berry confirmed during a press conference Wednesday that Gardner has participated in each day of practice so far this week and is set to go for CC.Berry wasn’t short on praise for a junior forward who has five goals and 15 points to his name so far this season, although Gardner’s presence extends much further than the score sheet.“Rhett’s a big part of our team,” Berry said. “He was a big part of our team two years ago as a freshman and progressively is an even bigger part now, and when you look on the penalty-kill side of it now, he’s a huge guy winning the initial draw trying to get a clear on that side of it, (and on) five-on-five and power play, too.“He plays all situations, he plays heavy minutes. He’s a big-body center that nullifies the other team’s usual top line, so he does a lot of things for us and, saying that, we haven’t won since he’s been out of the lineup, and I’m not saying it’s because he’s been out of the lineup, but he’s a direct influence on our positive result in games.”Fresh off a bye week after getting a win and a tie over Miami, Colorado College will be a tough out for UND, just as the Tigers during a series split near the start of the season. Gardner will remember it, having assisted on two UND goals in the Hawks’ 6-4 win on Oct. 28.There’s more riding on this series than there was in Colorado Springs, however. Two wins this weekend could catapult the Tigers from their seventh-place spot (20 points) above UND (24).As ever in the NCHC, but especially at this point in the season, there’s only a small margin of error.“The biggest thing is taking care of business and making sure you know everybody’s on the same level right now,” Berry said. “You look at Colorado College, we don’t consider them behind us. They’re right with us right there, and this is a huge weekend as far as standings and PairWise.”

Players of the week

Offensive player of the week: Mikey Eyssimont, St. Cloud State: The junior forward had a four-point weekend as SCSU completed a weekend sweep at home against Omaha. Eyssimont finished with two goals and as many assists against the Mavericks.Defensive player of the week: Louie Belpedio, Miami: Belpedio was a big reason the RedHawks managed a split last weekend against Western Michigan. The senior defenseman had a goal and three assists while helping limit Western to five goals in the series.Rookie of the week: Ethen Frank, Western Michigan: The freshman forward had just two goals on the season entering last weekend’s series with Miami but recorded three more against the RedHawks. His two goals in Saturday’s 3-2 WMU victory marked the first multi-goal game of Frank’s collegiate career.Goaltender of the week: Tanner Jaillet, Denver: Jaillet allowed just three goals last weekend against Minnesota Duluth and pitched his ninth career shutout Friday in a 1-0 win over the Bulldogs. This is now the 10th time the senior netminder has won the NCHC goaltender of the week award and his third this season.