Western Michigan hockey shut out, eliminated from NCAA tournament, 3-0, by Minnesota

Western Michigan hockey’s historic season came to an end Sunday as the Broncos couldn’t overcome a first-period deficit and was shut out by second-seeded Minnesota, 3-0, in the regional final in Worcester, Massachusetts. The top-seeded Broncos picked up the first NCAA tournament win in program history — after five previous first-round exits — on Friday but couldn’t claim their first Frozen Four berth.

The Golden Gophers advance to the Frozen Four, where they’ll face Albany regional champ (and 1-seed) Minnesota State (37-5-0) on April 7 in Boston. The winner of that game will face Denver of Michigan. (The Pioneers won the Loveland region, while the Wolverines won the Allentown region Sunday.)

[ BOSTON-BOUND: Michigan headed to Frozen Four for 1st time since 2018 ]

The run to the regional final was a stunning turnaround after WMU went 10-12-3 last season and hired a new coach, Pat Ferschweiler, in August after Andy Murray stepped down. Ferschweiler, a former Broncos player in his first year as an NCAA head coach, appears to have the program on solid footing once again.

"First period, I think we were a little nervous," Ferschweiler said. "You have to execute in big games to make plays and score goals. You can’t fault the way they worked, they worked hard until the end, and I was proud of their effort.”

Western Michigan forward Ethen Frank will lead the top-seeded Broncos this weekend in the NCAA Regionals at the DCU Center.
Western Michigan forward Ethen Frank will lead the top-seeded Broncos this weekend in the NCAA Regionals at the DCU Center.

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Still, it was a tough loss for the Broncos, a veteran-laden team.

"I don’t know where to begin honestly," graduate student forward Josh Passolt said. "This team is hard to put into words what it means to us and every guy in that room, I’m going to miss everybody on the team, we were such a tight-knit group and that’s why we had the success we did, because we believed in everybody, and everybody believed in each other so I’m going to miss every one of those guys."

It’s the 22nd Frozen Four for Minnesota, though the Gophers haven’t made the national semifinals since 2014. That season, Minnesota also made the championship game that season, losing to Union, 7-4. The Gophers’ last NCAA title came in 2003, when they defeated New Hampshire, 5-1, in Buffalo, New York. Current coach Bob Motzko, in his fourth season behind the bench in Minneapolis, was an assistant on that team. Two freshmen on Minnesota’s roster — goalie Owen Bartoszkiewicz (from Northville) and forward Chaz Lucius — were not yet born then.

Goalie Justen Close turned in a star performance, stopping all 24 shots he faced. It was a result few saw in early January, when star netminder and alternate captain Jack LaFontaine, honored last season as the NCAA’s top goalie, abruptly signed a contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. That gave the starting job to Close, a junior who had appeared in two previous games this season and just one as a sophomore. He went 14-4 as the starter and redeemed a rough outing in a Big Ten title game loss to Michigan with his dominance of the Broncos on Sunday.

Freshman Matthew Knies got the Gophers on the board halfway through the first period as he slammed home a pass in the slot, about 3 feet in front of the crease, from defenseman Brock Faber, one of three Minnesota players to compete in the Beijing Olympics in February, for his 14th goal of the season. Knies, another Olympian, took the pass from Faber, who was below the goal line on the left side, and put the puck over WMU goalie Brandon Bussi’s glove-side shoulder. Ben Meyers, the Gophers’ Hobey Baker Award (college hockey’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy) finalist and yet another Minnesota Olympian, picked up the other assist on only the Gophers’ second shot on goal.

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Neither goalie was tested much in the first period at the DCU Center; Bussi stopped the final seven shots he faced in the period, for eight saves overall, while Close only had to make four stops.

The Broncos’ offense picked up about six minutes into the second, when Minnesota defenseman Mike Koster was whistled for tripping. WMU controlled the puck in the offensive zone for most of the man advantage, but couldn’t get a shot past Close. To make matters worse, toward the end of the penalty, Jaxon Nelson turned a turnover into a breakaway. But Bussi saw the puck all the way and deflected it into the corner. Halfway through the second, WMU had outshot Minnesota, 9-5, but with no goals to show for it.

That changed momentarily with 8:44 left in the second. Junior defenseman Ronnie Attard, trailing the WMU attack, punched in a rebound of a Jason Polin shot. Polin’s wrister bounced off Close to the slot, where Attard, who was third on WMU’s roster with 13 goals, was waiting and went top shelf. But the goal was waived off, as video review showed freshman forward Max Sasson (Birmingham) entered the offensive zone ahead of the puck. The Broncos finished the period with 12 shots to Minnesota’s nine.

"It was kind of big," WMU forward Ethen Frank said. "It was still early enough in the game where we just had our heads on straight and we didn’t really want to get upset or frustrated because that’s when we start playing bad and getting away from our game plan. They just did a good job the rest of the game staying above us and it made it difficult for us to get some O-zone time

Just 10 seconds into the third, Frank was whistled for slashing and 23 seconds after that, the Gophers made the Broncos pay, with a one-timer Aaron Huglen off an assist from Meyers. As the WMU defense collapsed on Meyers in the right circle, he fired a pass across the zone where Huglen was waiting in the left circle for his seventh score of the season.

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Frank, a grad student who led the Broncos and the nation with 26 goals this season, had a particularly frustrating game; he was held shotless for the first 56 minutes.

The Broncos made one last push when Minnesota's Matt Stadaucher — a Fenton, Michigan, native — was whistled for hooking. Ferschweiler pulled Bussi to give the Broncos every advantage. Instead, it was the Gophers celebrating, as Blake McLaughlin sent the puck into the empty net with 1:57 remaining.

The “State of Hockey,” as Minnesota’s NHL franchise likes to call it, will have two teams in the Frozen Four, with the Gophers and Mavericks (of Mankato), and one in the national championship game. Minnesota and Minnesota State didn’t play this season but had a pair of common opponents. Both struggled against Michigan, with the Mavericks losing their only game against the Wolverines, and the Gophers going 2-3 (including that Big Ten title game loss). Minnesota also whiffed against Minnesota Duluth, with an 0-2 record; Minnesota State, though, went 2-0 vs. the CCHA rival.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Western Michigan hockey shut out, eliminated from NCAA tournament