Historic WMU hockey season ends with NCAA Tournament loss to Minnesota – MLive.com

Western Michigan goaltender Brandon Bussi (30) defends a shot on goal at the game between WMU and Michigan at WMU’s Lawson Ice Arena on Saturday, October 23, 2021. (Photo by Carlin Stiehl | MLive.com)Carlin Stiehl | MLive.com
Goals come at a premium in playoff hockey, and Western Michigan couldn’t generate enough to continue its historic season, as the Broncos fell to Minnesota, 3-0, in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament tilt at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass.
Playing in its first regional semifinal in program history, WMU struggled from the outset, falling behind 1-0 midway through the first period, when Minnesota’s Brock Faber backhanded a pass from behind the net to Matthew Knies, who one-timed a shot just inside the far post past Bronco goaltender Brandon Bussi.
Though the Broncos entered the contest as the Worcester regional’s No. 1 seed, second-seeded Minnesota boasted 14 NHL draft picks and three Team USA Olympians, including Knies and Faber, and the Golden Gophers played like an elite college hockey squad, outshooting WMU 9-4 in the first period.
WMU’s offense got going in the second, matching its first-period shot total within the first five minutes after intermission, and the Broncos appeared to tie the game with 8:42 left in the second, when Ronnie Attard found a rebound a knuckled a shot past Minnesota goalie Justen Close.
But officials reviewed the play and determined that WMU’s Max Sasson was offsides moments before the goal on a close play at the blue line, which allowed Minnesota to keep its 1-0 lead.
An uncharacteristic play from WMU’s Ethen Frank gave Minnesota power play 10 seconds into the third period, as the referees whistled the senior forward for a slash along the boards.
With a fresh sheet of ice on which to operate, Minnesota needed just 23 seconds to find the net again, as Aaron Huglen received a perfect cross-ice pass from Ben Meyers and snapped a one-timer just past a sliding Bussi.
With its season hanging in the balance, WMU would’ve done well to gamble and create some odd-man rushes, but Minnesota’s defense denied the Broncos easy entry into the offensive zone, while creating chances of their own, including a 2-on-1 one-timer from Sammy Walker that Bussi stopped by sliding across his crease.
WMU finally caught a break when the referees whistled Minnesota for a hooking penalty with 3:32 left in the third period, but even after pulling the goalie for an extra attacker, the Broncos failed to generate a great scoring chance.
With 24 seconds left on WMU’s power play, Minnesota’s Blake McLaughlin pounced on a loose puck inside his own zone and slid the puck all the way down the ice to give the Gophers a 3-0 lead with 1:57 left in regulation.
With the win, Minnesota (26-12) advances to its 23rd Frozen Four and first since 2014. The Gophers will play Minnesota State (37-5), the Albany region’s No. 1 seed, on April 7 at TD Garden in Boston.
WMU wraps up its season at 26-12-1, after earning a No. 1 seed for the first time on program history and winning its first NCAA Tournament game with Friday’s 2-1 overtime victory against Northeastern, which gave Bussi the Broncos’ single-season wins record.
The Broncos also achieved a program first by reaching the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Tournament semifinals leading up to their NCAA tourney run.
Bussi will have a decision to make regarding his pro hockey career because he should receive interest from multiple teams after an outstanding junior season.
Attard, the only NHL draft pick in WMU’s lineup, is also expected to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers, who picked the White Lake, Mich., native in the third round of the 2019 draft.
Frank, the nation’s leading goal scorer with 26 tallies, also sees his college career come to an end due to expired eligibility, as does forward Josh Passolt.
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3-0 Minnesota, End 3rd period
Minnesota logged its fifth shutout of the season and blanked WMU for the fourth time, sealing the Gophers’ first trip to the Frozen Four since 2014.
3-0 Minnesota, 1:57 3P
GOAL: Minnesota’s Blake McLaughlin gathered the puck inside his own zone and slid it down the ice and into the open net for a 100-plus-foot shorthanded goal that essentially sealed the Gophers’ Frozen Four bid.
2-0 Minnesota, 2:22 3P
WMU pulled Bussi to bring an extra attacker and create a 6-on-4 power play.
2-0 Minnesota, 3:32 3P
Luke Grainger’s strong skating carried the puck into Minnesota’s zone and brought the puck in deep until Minnesota’s Staudacher hooked him and gave the Broncos their second power play of the game.
WMU opted to keep Bussi in net, rather than pull him for the extra attacker.
2-0 Minnesota, 5:14 3P
Minnesota continued to prevent WMU from getting anything going, and even put together a strong shift with its own offense by keeping the puck in the Broncos’ zone and generating a quality scoring chance out front from Pitlick.
WMU was forced to ice the puck to clear the zone, prompting the Broncos to take a timeout to refresh without a line change.
2-0 Minnesota, 9:50 3P
Max Sasson had a productive shift by sending two pucks to the net from the side boards, both of which led to good chances from WMU, but Minnesota’s sticks made it tough for the Broncos to generate any good shots on Close.
2-0 Minnesota, 15:20 3P
Minnesota nearly made it a three-goal game on after Blake McLaughlin picked the pocket of WMU defenseman Aidan Fulp in the Broncos zone to create a 2-on-1. After waiting for the WMU defender to commit to blocking a McLaughlin shot, he slid a pass across the ice to Sammy Walker, who redirected the puck toward an empty net, but Bussi slid across to slam the door at the last possible second.
2-0 Minnesota, 19:27 3P
GOAL: WMU put itself in an early hole, as Ethen Frank was called for slashing just 10 seconds after the opening faceoff, giving Minnesota its first power play on a fresh sheet of ice.
Aaron Huglen made WMU pay by snapping a one-timer just past a sliding Bussi, after collecting a beautiful cross-ice pass from Ben Meyers.
1-0 Minnesota, End 2nd period
WMU put together a much stronger period from an offensive standpoint, and the Broncos nearly got rewarded with a rebound goal by Ronnie Attard, but referees reviewed the call on the ice and disallowed the goal due to Max Sasson being offsides on a close play at the blue line.
WMU also went on its first power play, and the Broncos got a trio of one-timers from Attard, but Minnesota goalie Justen Close stopped two of them, and the third one was blocked before it got to him.
Minnesota also had its share of chances, with the best coming on a shorthanded breakaway from Jaxson Nelson, who opted to unleash a wrister from between the faceoff circles, rather than put a move on WMU goalie Brandon Bussi, who deflected the shot away with his blocker.
The Broncos outshot Minnesota, 12-9, in the second period, but the Gophers still hold an overall edge of 18-16.
1-0 Minnesota, 1:03 2P
Minnesota got a golden opportunity late in the second period, when Tristan Broz received a pass from behind the net and snapped a sharp-angled shot toward the near post, forcing Bussi to make a nice save on the short side.
1-0 Minnesota, 3:17 2P
Josh Passolt sent a beautiful pass through the crease and on to the stick of Grainger, but the puck caught him in an awkward position and prevented him from getting much on a shot before Close closed down the wide open net.
1-0 Minnesota, 7:30 2P
Minnesota entered the offensive zone with a 4-on-2, but WMU’s defense scrambled to force a long wrist shot from LaCombe that Bussi gloved without a problem.
1-0 Minnesota, 8:42 2P
NO GOAL: WMU appeared to have a goal on a Ronnie Attard shot off a rebound, but the referees reviewed the play and ruled that Max Sasson was offsides on the play, negating the goal and maintaining Minnesota’s lead.
1-0 Minnesota, 11:51 2P
Ronnie Attard unleased a trio of one-timers on the power play, two of which got through to Close, but WMU couldn’t muster much else with the man advantage. Minnesota generated the best scoring chance with a shorthanded breakaway attempt by Jaxon Nelson.
1-0 Minnesota, 11:54 2P
Minnesota’s Nelson intercepted a WMU pass across the blue line to create a shorthanded breakaway, but rather than attempt a move on Bussi, he unleased a slapshot from between the faceoff circles that the WMU goaltender pushed aside with his blocker.
1-0 Minnesota, 13:51 2P
WMU took advantage of a Minnesota defender falling down behind the Gophers’ net and created a chance in front of the net that was disrupted by Mike Koster tripping a Bronco attacker, giving WMU the game’s first power play.
1-0 Minnesota, 15:48 2P
Sasson sent a puck to the net from the wing, forcing Close to make a quick glove save before another Bronco could close in on the puck for a redirection. That marked WMU’s fourth shot of the second period, matching their total from the entirety of the first.
1-0 Minnesota, 18:10 2P
Minnesota put together a dangerous shift, as Nelson carried the puck up the wing and walked in on Bussi, before firing a shot wide, but the Gophers gathered the loose puck and got a point-blank shot from Pitlick, which led to a rebound trickling across the crease, before the Broncos could clear.
1-0 Minnesota, End 1st period
Minnesota ended the opening period with a couple quality chances, beginning with a giveaway deep in WMU’s zone that put the puck on the stick of Ben Meyers, but his wrister from the wing was steered aside by Bussi.
WMU defenseman Aidan Fulp took a hard shot to the leg during that flurry, and he eventually made it to the bench shortly before the period expired.
The Gophers outshot WMU 9-4 in the period, with three of the Broncos shots coming in the first four minutes.
Minnesota made it difficult for WMU to enter the offensive zone, while having little trouble getting the puck out of their own end. Allowing nine shots to a talented Gophers team made for a decent defensive effort from WMU, but the Broncos will have to find a way to generate some scoring chances or coax Minnesota into committing a penalty.
1-0 Minnesota, 3:31 1P
WMU ends its shot-on-goal drought with a wrister from just inside the point by Joyaux that reached Close after going past a couple bodies in front of the net.
1-0 Minnesota, 4:53 1P
After registering the game’s first three shots, WMU has struggled to get anything going on offense, with Minnesota keeping the Broncos without a shot on goal for the last 11 minutes.
Minnesota’s has kept the play mostly in WMU’s zone, including a couple consecutive shifts that saw the Gophers swarm and create a couple quality scoring chances.
1-0 Minnesota, 9:50 1P
GOAL: Minnesota forward Matthew Knies returned to the ice after missing several shifts due to a sore ankle sustained off a slapshot from WMU’s Ronnie Attard, and he made an instant impact by firing a shot past Bussi from in front of the net off an assist from Brock Faber.
WMU left Knies all alone in front of the net to receive a backhand pass from Faber, and the Gophers were able to capitalize on their first scoring chance of the game.
0-0, 14:19 1P
Minnesota earns its first offensive zone faceoff, after Meyers tries to split a pair of WMU defenders, forcing Bussi to cover up the puck.
Chances have been few and far between for both teams throughout the game’s first five minutes.
0-0, 16:31 1P
WMU logged the game’s first shot on goal, as Jason Polin sent a wrist shot toward the net from the right wing, but Justen Close kicked the puck out of harm’s way with his right leg pad.
0-0, 19:28 1P
Minnesota appeared to have a breakaway opportunity early, but the Gophers were whistled for offsides to negate the scoring chance.
PREGAME
UPDATE: Here’s a look at WMU’s lines. No changes from the Northeastern game.
No word on WMU’s lines yet, but Minnesota released theirs, and the Gophers are rolling with the same lineup that got them here, headlined by a top line of Matthew Knies (12 goals, 18 assists), Ben Meyers (17 G, 22 A) and Aaron Huglen (6 G, 9 A).
Minnesota hockey lines for Worcester regional final vs. WMU.
Minnesota goalie Justen Close slid into a starting spot after Jack LaFontaine signed an NHL contract with the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 9. LaFontaine started the Gophers’ first 20 games and posted a 12-8 record with a 2.69 goals-against average.
Since then, Minnesota has gone 13-4, with Close registering a 1.93 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.
A Minnesota victory would put them in the Frozen Four for the 22nd time and first since 2014, while a WMU win would put them in the national semifinals for the first time in team history.
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The Western Michigan hockey team continues its historic season with a NCAA Tournament contest against Minnesota on Sunday at the DCU Center Arena in Worcester, Mass.
Puck drop is scheduled for 4 p.m. between the No. 1 seed Broncos and the second-seeded Golden Gophers, and the game will air on ESPN2. Click here for info on how to watch.
If you’re unable to catch the game live, bookmark this page and check in with us throughout the afternoon for frequent updates.
WMU (26-11-1) enters the Worcester regional championship tilt coming off its first NCAA Tournament win, as the Broncos defeated Northeaster, 2-1, on Friday thanks to an overtime goal from Luke Grainger in the first two minutes of the extra session.
Minnesota (25-12) also needed overtime to defeat its Round 1 opponent, ultimately advancing with a 4-3 win over defending national champion UMass thanks to game-winning goal from Hobey Baker Award finalist Ben Meyers, who ended the contest at 8:31 in the extra session.
The deciding goal capped the Golden Gophers’ comeback from a 3-1 second-period deficit.
WMU and Minnesota have met just once in the programs’ histories, with the Broncos claiming a 9-3 win on Dec. 17, 1988.
The stakes are much greater this time around, as the winner will earn a spot at the 2022 Frozen Four, which begins April 7 at TD Garden in Boston.
WMU boasts the nation’s leading scorer in Ethen Frank (26 goals), while Meyers leads Minnesota with 17 on the season.
The Broncos boast 10 players with at least seven goals and nine with at least 20 points, so Frank hasn’t been the only one putting the puck in the net for WMU.
Minnesota features 11 players with at least six goals and six with at least 20 points. The Golden Gophers’ roster is loaded with 14 NHL draft picks, headlined by first-round selections Chaz Lucius (18th overall in 2021) and Ryan Johnson (31st in 2019).
WMU’s draft picks consist of defenseman Ronnie Attard (3rd round to Philadelphia in 2019) and forward Wyatt Schingoethe (7th rounds to Toronto in 2020).
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