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17th-ranked WMU hockey should be proud of Minnesota showing

Western Michigan was written off. Not many gave them a chance against the country's top-ranked team, the University of Michigan. Not even their first-year manager, Pat Ferschweiler ahead of a two-game series. No surprise.

The Wolverines recently defeated fifth-ranked Minnesota Duluth, 5-1, and No. 1 Minnesota State, 3-2, at the Ice Breaker Tournament in Duluth. They were rewarded with all 34 first-place votes in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Poll and 45 of 50 first-place votes in last week’s US College Hockey Online poll, according to www.gamblingmentor.org.

The Wolverines is spoilt with talents. They have five first-rounders from the 2021 NHL Draft – defenseman Owen Power (first overall), forward Matty Beniers (second), defenseman Luke Hughes (third), forward Kent Johnson (fifth) and forward Mackie Samoskevich (24th) – plus two more Round 1 picks from previous drafts in forward Brendan Brisson (29th overall in 2020) and forward Johnny Beecher (30th overall in 2019).

The golf is apparent. WMU, on the other hand, has just two NHL draft picks on its roster in All-American junior defenseman Ronnie Attard (72nd overall in 2019) and freshman forward Wyatt Schingoe the (195th in 2020). Michigan has just six regular skaters that are in their fourth year in the program. But while admitting the strength of their opponents and the magnitude of the challenge, Ferschweiler was optimistic.

"We’re excited about the challenge," he had said. "I watched them play in the Ice Breaker tournament up in Duluth this past weekend. They look like a very, very strong team. They’re deep; they’re talented; they skate; they work; they’re very well-coached – all things that our guys are going to smile at and say, ‘We do a lot of that same stuff. We skate, and we compete.’ So, we’re going to give it everything we have. I like our compete for level, and I like that our guys want the challenge of facing the No. 1 team in the country."

And Ferschweiler's lads were up to the challenge. On Friday in Ann Arbor, the minors drowned the Wolverines 5-2. They stifled their high-powered opponents to grab a 3-0 lead midway through the second period and maintain at least a two-goal cushion throughout.

After controlling much of the first period, WMU capitalized in the final minute as junior defenseman Aidan Fulp’s shot from the point found its way through traffic and into the top corner for his first career goal.

The Broncos carried the momentum into the second period with two goals in the first eight minutes, including fifth-year senior Ethen Frank’s fourth goal of the season.

The Wolverines entered Friday with the top power play in the country, converting 50% of their opportunities. But they were 0 for 6 against WMU, although freshman defenseman Luke Hughes’ goal that cut the deficit to 3-1 came seconds after a Broncos player got out of the box. WMU goalie Brandon Bussi made 23 saves to help the Broncos beat the top-ranked team in the country for the first time since the 2017-18 season.

Michigan, though, avoided a series sweep with a 3-2 overtime victory on Saturday at Lawson Ice Arena. After jumping into the offensive zone from the bench, senior captain Nick Blankenburg received a pass from Thomas Bordeleau and ripped a wrist shot past the blocker of WMU goalie Brandon Bussi with 2:38 left in the extra session.

The Wolverines had their noses in front through Brendan Brisson and Nolan Moyle. But WMU responded in style through Ethan Frank and Drew Worrad. Each team killed off a penalty in the third period, and the Broncos outshot the Wolverines 10-8, which doesn’t include Frank’s waived-off goal in the final two minutes.

Both goaltenders had stretches of excellence, and Portillo stopped 33 of 35 shots, while Bussi made 27 saves against 30 shots. After entering the series with goals on 7 of its 14 power-play opportunities, Michigan went 1 for 5 with the man advantage on Saturday and finished the series 1 for 10. WMU cashed in on two of its five power-play chances and went 4 for 8 in the series.

WMU may have lost the second tilt but the side showed character and purpose. They were never intimidated by their superior rivals and took the game to them. Still, their manager showered praises on Michigan.

"They are everything everyone talks about -- they’re skilled, they’re talented, they’re fast," Ferschweiler said via real money casino sites. "They’re smart hockey players. Our job was to make it hard on them every time we could, and I thought our guys did a great job of staying disciplined in our game plan, making sure they had to come through us to get to our net, and our goaltender played a big-time game tonight."

WMU (3-1) takes the ice next against Colgate on Friday for the first of a two-game series in Hamilton, N.Y. They should hold their heads high.

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