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Michigan hockey series preview: Western Michigan

The newly-christened No. 1 team in the country goes home-and-home with an in-state rival.

Duel In The D: Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, the Michigan Wolverines’ hockey team has begun its season 4-0. But this year’s start has been far more impressive, with big wins against No. 5 Minnesota Duluth and No. 1 Minnesota State last week.

Last season’s Wolverines were promptly swept by Notre Dame after their unbeaten start, though, and lost five out of their next six overall. This year’s Wolverines, freshly ranked No. 1 in both the USCHO and USA Hockey polls for the first time since Oct. 2011, will attempt to avoid that fate this weekend against Western Michigan.

The casual fan probably won’t bat an eye at mention of Western Michigan’s hockey program, but the Broncos are actually ranked 16th in the nation per USA Hockey’s rankings (17th in the USCHO poll). That’s higher than all but three teams Michigan’s scheduled to face the rest of the year.

WMU plays in the NCHC, which is maybe the toughest conference in college hockey. The Broncos are somewhat of an afterthought there: they’ve made only one NCAA Tournament in eight seasons in the eight-team league. But last season provided reasons for optimism. WMU went 10-12-3, but ended the regular season on a five-game winning streak which included a victory over Frozen Four-bound St. Cloud State and a sweep of Minnesota Duluth. The Broncos also took the Bulldogs to overtime in the NCHC Tournament.

While Pat Ferschweiller is in his first season as head coach, his team is one of the most experienced in all of college hockey. All but three skaters and one goaltender have returned for 2021-22. Of WMU’s 77 goals and 135 assists a season ago, 95.8 percent of them are back.

Considering both of these factors, expectations were relatively high for the Broncos this season, and things have gone according to plan so far. WMU beat Ohio State 3-1 in an exhibition game on Oct. 2, and swept Ferris State, 4-0 and 4-3, in a home-and-away last weekend.

Western Michigan’s best player is Ronnie Attard, a junior defenseman who cracked the All-NCHC First Team a year ago and was a preseason all-conference selection this season. In 25 games in 2020-21, Attard was the Broncos’ second-leading scorer with eight goals and 14 assists. This season, the Philadelphia Flyers prospect has a goal and an assist.

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Ronnie Attard was a third-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2019.
Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Broncos’ main goal-scoring threat is fifth-senior forward Ethen Frank, who put in 13 last year and leads the team with three goals and two assists on this young season. Passing-wise, senior forward Drew Worrad (5G, 18A in 2020-21) leads the way. WMU has a pretty deep offense — 10 players who recorded 10 points last season — so if Attard, Frank or Worrad is off, the likes of Paul Washe, Josh Passolt and Cole Gallant can all up.

In goal is Brandon Bussi, a massive goalie at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, who went 18-12-4 with a .910 save percentage as a freshman in 2019-20. Bussi suffered a lower-body injury early last season and the Broncos suffered through subpar goaltending with him out, but in three games as a starter he went 2-1 with the team’s best goals-allowed average and save percentage. This year, Bussi’s started both games and stopped 41-of-44 shots.

Even in its wins last week, Michigan had cold stretches, such as the first 10 minutes against Minnesota Duluth and the second period against Minnesota State. Eliminating those will be a priority against a solid Bronco team, as will maintaining better discipline. Much better discipline.

The Wolverines have taken 26 penalties in four games and surrendered at least five power plays in all of their games, and Western Michigan scored on 30 percent of its power plays in 2020-21, which ranked second in the nation. If there’s an area the Broncos can exploit, it’s with the man advantage — as long as it doesn’t come back to bite them. Michigan’s own power play has been excellent so far, scoring on seven of 14 chances, and WMU was just 43rd out of 51 teams in killing off penalties a year ago (75.3 percent).

If Michigan stays out of the box and doesn’t get too high on itself after winning the Duluth Ice Breaker, the Wolverines should improve to 6-0. But they won’t see a better opponent until they host No. 13 Notre Dame Nov. 19-20, and the Broncos are not to be taken lightly.

Puck drop for Friday night’s game at Yost Ice Arena is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., with the game being televised on BTN+. Saturday’s game at Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo is set for a 7 p.m. start and will be televised on NCHC.TV (subscription required).