KALAMAZOO, MI – After splitting a two-game series last October against then-No. 1 Michigan, Western Michigan hockey forward Drew Worrad admitted he was looking forward to the rubber match two months later at the Great Lakes Invitational 2021.
It was hard to blame the WMU senior for anticipating a third installment of the in-state rivalry after a couple of exciting contests that included a Game 1 upset by the Broncos Y a Wolverines overtime win.
“I know it was in the back of my head, knowing we’re not done with them yet,” said Worrad, now with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins. “I think we’re very excited about that. That second game on Saturday really had a playoff feel to it, which is great to have that experience so early…and I think with the split this weekend, having that third game is unique. Usually you don’t get an odd number of games against a team where you can actually win that season series.”
Of course, that third game never materialized, as Michigan pulled out of its Great Lakes invitational matchup with Western Michigan due to “health and wellness protocols,” despite taking the ice a day earlier against Michigan. Tech.
Critics of the late cancellation claimed that Michigan was avoiding the Broncos, then a top-five team, because several of the Wolverines’ top players were off the team preparing for the World Junior Championship.
Both teams had successful seasons, with Michigan reaching the Frozen Four and WMU earning its first NCAA tournament No. 1 seed and winning its first playoff game in program history.
But that missed opportunity has remained in the Broncos’ locker room, at least according to WMU captain Jason Polin, whose team will get another shot at Michigan in this weekend’s two-game series.
“This one was definitely circled on my calendar, that’s for sure,” Polin said. “We were a little upset with the way things were handled last year, but we’ll take that into consideration and take it into the weekend with us.”
The puck giveaway for Game 1 between the Wolverines (5-1) and Broncos (5-2) is scheduled for Friday at 7 p.m. at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor (Big Ten+ broadcast), with the teams returning to Kalamazoo’s Lawson Arena for a Saturday Finale at 6 p.m. (NCHC.tv).
WMU head coach Pat Ferschweiler, now in his second year at the top of the program, downplayed the revenge factor heading into the series between the fourth-seeded Wolverines and the No. 16 Broncos, but said his team he’s excited to take the ice for what will be. his toughest test of the start of the season.
“We don’t necessarily circle things,” Ferschweiler said. “We had two good contests with them last year. We would have loved to play them a third time. Obviously, that was not an opportunity that they gave us, but we will play against them this week and we are excited about it.”
Although Michigan lost 10 players from last year’s team who are currently on a professional hockey roster, including four active NHLers, the Wolverines still have 12 NHL draft picks, four of which were first-round picks.
Not included on that list is freshman Adam Fantilli, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound center from Ontario who leads the nation in assists (10), ranks fifth in goals (5) and has four points. more (15) than the next closest college hockey player.
“They look a lot like last year’s team,” Ferschweiler said of Michigan. “They are loaded; They are the most talented team in the country. I think they have seven first-round picks or some version of that again. They have a fantastic young center, Adam Fantilli, who leads the country in points right now and is having the best season of any draft-eligible player in college hockey history.
“They are dangerous; they have offensive talent and are everything you would expect from their team. It will be a great challenge for us.”
Fantilli is a projected top-five pick in June’s NHL draft and someone WMU needs to keep an eye on at all times, but he’s far from the only threat on a Michigan team that leads the nation in goals (31 ) and goals per game (5.2).
Fantilli’s linemates Mackie Samoskevich (5 goals, 5 assists) and Dylan Duke (4 goals, 5 assists) are among the top 15 players in the country for points, making that superior unit one of the most dangerous in college hockey.
Although the Broncos haven’t played the caliber of offense you’ll see this weekend, WMU leads the nation in shots allowed per game (21) and ranks fourth nationally in goals allowed per game (1.9), to which Freschweiler credits his team’s ability to own the puck.
“I think it’s the pressure of the puck. I think it’s our style of play,” Ferschweiler said of his team’s ability to limit opponents’ shots. “We like to have the puck as much as possible, and when we don’t have it, we’re attacking and making it very difficult to get into our zone under control. It makes them chase the puck, and so far we’ve been efficient in our breakouts.
“I think it’s hard to have him in our area for a long time. Our D has done a great job against the drive, which is limiting possession in our zone.”
WMU is coming off an especially dominant effort against No. 12 Notre Dame, in which the Broncos limited the Irish to 22 shots in their 4-0 Game 2 win, after giving up 32 in a 2-0 loss. at the opening of the series.
“I think we played a solid hockey game on Friday,” Ferschweiler said of Game 1. “It wasn’t great. We had several opportunities that we did not materialize. They were probably the better team that night, and we have to find ways to score goals.
“On Saturday, I thought we were very good. Since the drop of the puck, our energy level was high, we played with more intention, we played with a physical purpose in the antegoal and in front of the net”.
That Game 2 shutout was the first in a WMU sweater for goalie Cam Rowe, who came to Kalamazoo after two seasons at Wisconsin, where he was part of the All-Big Ten Rookie Team in 2020-21.
The 6-foot-3 goalkeeper ranks in the top 15 nationally in wins (5th at 4), goals-against average (8th at 1.66) and save percentage (13th at 9.28), which he resembles his freshman season more than a sophomore. campaign with the Badgers, where he posted a 4.30 GAA and an .861 save percentage.
Ferschweiler credited WMU goalkeeping coach and former Broncos assistant Will Massey with helping Rowe adjust to his new surroundings.
“Cam, like a lot of our players, is starting to get better every day,” Ferschweiler said. “Cam is the best when he’s calm in there, like most goalkeepers, and Will Massey has done a great job with him in practice, in terms of Cam noticing that he’s 6-foot-3 (he’s a big cat in there) and just let some spikes hit it. When you need that athleticism… he has that athletic ability too, so he’s great.”
WMU’s ability to limit opponents’ chances and capitalize on their own (the Broncos rank seventh nationally at 3.9 goals per game) has certainly taken some pressure off the new goalie, but it will be interesting to see how he holds up over time. weekend.
In last year’s matchup at Yost, WMU jumped out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second period and cruised to a 5-2 win, and that kind of start will be imperative again in 2022, Polin said.
“Obviously we need a fast start and we need to attack them from the get-go,” the freshman captain said. “That’s one of the keys for us going into every game, but especially this weekend to get the crowd out and get to our game right away.”