This Week in NCHC Hockey: Western Michigan has to keep winning to have NCAA tournament hopes

Paul Washe (Western Michigan-23) 2020 February 29 Western Michigan and the University of North Dakota meet in a NCHC contest in Grand Forks, ND (Bradley K. Olson)
Paul Washe is one of five Western Michigan players with 10 or more goals this season, compiling 12 in 34 games for the Broncos (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Western Michigan’s 5-2 home win last Friday against Miami, combined with St. Cloud State’s loss that night against Minnesota Duluth, clinched a home-ice playoff spot for WMU.

Another Bronco win Saturday kept Western in with a shot at qualifying for the NCAA tournament.

The Broncos aren’t there yet, though.

Currently 18th in the PairWise Rankings, Western (18-13-5) would need to eliminate fifth-seeded St. Cloud State (13-15-6) this weekend in the first round of the NCHC playoffs and then do damage next week at the Frozen Faceoff, the conference’s championship event in St. Paul, Minn.

At least on paper, Western has the inside track on getting there. These games are played on something else, though, and Broncos coach Andy Murray is well aware that his team has been in a similar situation before. Just last year, WMU hosted Colorado College in the first round of the NCHC playoffs but lost in three games against the Tigers.

Just like that, a 21-win season — tied for Murray’s second-highest win total over his nine seasons so far in Kalamazoo — was over.

“For us to advance, we’ve got to win two hockey games, and Colorado College came in here last year and played very well,” Murray said Monday during his weekly press conference. “It wasn’t a matter of us playing poorly, but at this time of the year, you need to be very good.

“You need to make sure that you’ve got all of your players going, that you’re playing the right kind of game, that you’re not cheating on any side of it, and I think a little bit last year against Colorado College, we’d done well against them in the regular season, and our intensity level maybe in the first game wasn’t there but it certainly was after that, and we lost the third and deciding game (3-2) in a game where we had the puck most of the hockey game and they did the scoring.

“We’re going to have to be at our very best,” Murray continued. “Let’s be ready to go from the drop of the puck and recognize that you get into scenarios in the season where they’re must-wins, and must-wins are only when it means you don’t play anymore if you don’t win, so these are must-wins.”

Last week’s sweep over Miami saw the Broncos snap a recent three-game losing streak.

Four different Western players scored Friday in a 5-2 win, with Jason Polin finding the back of the net twice. In Saturday’s 8-4 victory over the RedHawks, WMU defenseman Cam Lee had five assists and senior classmate Hugh McGing recorded a hat trick en route to posting a four-point game.

It could be seen as good news that Western has drawn for the playoffs a St. Cloud State team that the Broncos swept at home Jan. 24-25 by identical 6-2 scores. Murray’s players know, however, that beating the Huskies twice more isn’t a given.

“It doesn’t matter, the last two games,” junior forward Paul Washe said of the teams’ lone regular-season series. “It’s playoff hockey now, and anybody can beat anybody.

“We know we’re playing a fast team that can play strong hockey and they’re dangerous and they’re playing their best hockey. We’ve got to play our best game, and we feel like if we do that, we’re going to get the result we’re looking for.”

Western won’t be at full strength Friday, with sophomore forward Rhett Kingston (nine goals, eight assists this season) serving a one-game suspension following a major penalty for charging and a game misconduct call in the first period of last Saturday’s game against Miami. Still, the Broncos will look to redeem themselves after last season’s early exit while knocking off SCSU, only a year removed from being the NCAA tournament’s top seed.

“No. 1 in the country last year, and you don’t forget how to win,” Murray said. “They’re going to come in here loaded. They realize they want to be playing in St. Paul the week after at the Frozen Faceoff, just like we do, for our league championship.

“Both teams are going to go after it. Bottom line: we can’t control the way that St. Cloud plays, but we can control our effort and our commitment and what we do this weekend.”

Of course, there’s also a longer-term goal that the Broncos have in mind: securing a better spot in the PairWise to try and get into the national tournament.

“We’ve put ourselves in a position where we’ve got a chance,” Washe said. “We’ve just got to keep putting wins under our belt, and that’s what we plan to do.”

UND claims Penrose Cup outright

North Dakota put both metaphorical hands on the NCHC’s regular season championship trophy Saturday thanks to a 5-0 win at Omaha.

The Fighting Hawks had lost 4-1 Friday against UNO but had previously clinched at least a share of the league’s regular season title. No matter. Saturday’s victory gave UND the Penrose Cup outright, helping the Hawks finish three spots above UMD.

UMD, which won three national championships in the last decade, including the last two NCAA titles, hasn’t won a regular-season conference title since 1993.

NCHC All-Rookie Team announced

Denver and Omaha are both represented twice on this season’s NCHC all-rookie team, which was released Tuesday by the league.

DU forward Bobby Brink and goaltender Magnus Chrona both earned spots on the list, as did Omaha forward Joey Abate and defenseman Brandon Scanlin. North Dakota forward Shane Pinto and Western Michigan blueliner Ronnie Attard also earned all-rookie honors.

Brink and Attard were both unanimous picks for the list, each earning 45 points and 15 first-place votes. Voting was done by the league’s eight head coaches and eight media members, one covering each member school. Coaches weren’t allowed to vote for their own players.

One more thing…

If you’ve been reading our league columns from this time of the year long enough, you know what’s coming here.

This is my last NCHC column of the season. I’ll be back on the site early next week with our regular Monday 10 news roundup, I have some more picks to be wrong about and I have a feature coming up on a Hockey Humanitarian Award finalist, but otherwise my time covering NCAA hockey this season is just about up.

I’ve been writing for this site since 2007, and it’s crazy how fast that kind of time flies. I started out covering Omaha as a beat reporter before branching out into league coverage. I moved away nearly six years ago and now live three hours away from the closest NCHC arena, but while I cover good ACHA men’s (and soon also women’s) hockey here in Bottineau, N.D., I’m grateful for the opportunity to stay connected to NCAA hockey too.

As for the NCHC column, my wonderful writing partner Candace Horgan will take us home next week. Candace, thank you for everything, and I trust you’ll put my annual NCHC picks contest beer money to optimal use.

Thank you also to my family, friends, coworkers and readers here at USCHO. Enjoy the rest of the season.