Providence, RI — The two teams most familiar with each other in Friday’s NCAA Tournament East Regional are the two from the furthest distance away from the Dunkin Donuts Center.
When Western Michigan and Air Force square off in the second of two games from ‘The Dunk,’ it will be the third meeting of the year between the teams. WMU sent the Falcons back to Colorado Springs with a tie and a loss after a November series in Kalamazoo.
“We are certainly excited to have the opportunity to participate in the final 16. We’re excited to come east and play an opponent that we played earlier in the season in Air Force,” said Western Michigan coach Andy Murray. “[Air Force] is a very hardworking and determined team.”
While the Falcons have typically been known for being a disciplined and hardworking team, their counterparts from the NCHC also take pride in bringing the lunch pail to the office.
“We are a hardworking team. If you are looking at us, we probably aren’t the biggest guys, but overall we are a pretty big team in size,” said senior forward Sheldon Dries. “We like to use that to our strength and use our speed as well. I feel like we have a lot of speed up front and on the back end. We need to possess the puck and feed off each other for success.”
Combining that size and speed led WMU to a third place finish in the ultra-competitive NCHC and the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2012, Murray’s first behind as bench boss of the Broncos.
2012 just happens to be the last time the Falcons have made the NCAA Tournament as well after making five appearances from 2007 to 2012. The four-year absence felt like an eternity for AFA coach Frank Serratore.
“Obviously it’s great to be back here, we played in 5 tournaments in 6 years and I didn’t think it was ever going to end. Then we went 4 years without it and I was wondering for a while if it was ever going to happen again,” said Serratore.
Unlike in most years when the Atlantic Hockey Tournament Champion sneaks into the NCAA Tournament, Air Force is a team that was close to making it on its own merit. The Falcons enter Friday’s contest with a record of 26-9-5, but do so with a commitment to team and without a true superstar.
“We are going to play the same regardless of who we play. We are going to go up and down and we are going to compete. We are going to play 4 lines and 6 ‘D.’ If you are going to beat us you are going to have to beat all 18 skaters and our goalie. We aren’t going to shorten the bench,” said Serratore, who played college hockey at Western Michigan before finishing up at Bemidji State.
If there is a most valuable player on the Falcons, it is sophomore goaltender Shane Starrett. The Bellingham, Mass. native who was originally committed to BU will be playing close to home Friday.
“Our marquee player, the guy that makes the difference for us is Starrett, our goalie. He’s 6’5” and athletic. He’s been good. Why are we a good penalty killing team? You look at good penalty killing teams and the best penalty killer is the goalie,” Serratore explained.
WMU freshman goaltender Ben Blacker has been the workhorse for the Broncos, starting 25 consecutive games after returning from a bout with mononucleosis. The Oakville, Ontario native has a .918 save percentage.
“I’m pretty basic with the goalies. Just stop the puck. He has done a great job of doing that this year,” said Murray. “Since coming back in early December he has played every game for us and has been solid. He’s a goalie that goes about his business and doesn’t say a lot. He just competes on a nightly basis and has been good for us. He’s not your prototypical new age goalie in the fact that he is 5’ 10” but he certainly plays bigger than that.”
Puck drop is scheduled for 7:30 ET on Friday evening. The winner advances to face the winner of the East Regional’s first game between Harvard and Providence.