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March 23, 2012

Heavyweight North Dakota brings challenge to WMU hockey

Western Michigan's 2011-12 hockey team was laboring down the stretch, until the last six games left a mark on the program that will be remembered for years to come. Now the Broncos have a chance to be remembered forever as the first team in program history to win a game in the NCAA Tournament.

It won't come easy, as the mighty Fighting Sioux of North Dakota stand in the way, although the historic nickname will not be in use this weekend. North Dakota is not currently allowed to use the Sioux name in NCAA-sanctioned events unless they are able to secure permission from the tribe. At any rate, the game will feature two of the hottest teams in the country, with the WCHA and CCHA champions squaring off.

Western Michigan comes in on a six game unbeaten and five game winning streak, but the impressive aspect is the level of competition. Three of the wins and one tie came against top ten teams in the USCHO.com rankings. North Dakota, meanwhile, has won seven straight and is 22-5-2 since November 25th. This includes a highly impressive run in the WCHA tournament that culminated in a 6-3 win over Minnesota and a 4-0 shutout of Denver in the championship game.

The Sioux are running shorthanded, with only 19 players able to dress for much of the latter part of the season. There is some concern that fatigue could play a negative role for North Dakota in the tournament, but WMU head coach Andy Murray doesn't believe it will.

"They've got lots of good hockey players there," Murray told BroncoBlitz on Wednesday. "I think most college hockey programs would love to take their lineup right now. They're North Dakota, and they'll be good. But, so was Michigan, and so was Miami."

The Sioux are led by sophomore forward Brock Nelson with 27 goals and 44 points, and they boast a top ten offense nationally and a powerful 22.6% power play. The biggest weakness for North Dakota is their penalty kill, which ranks 36th in the country at 80.9%. The Sioux do a good job of staying out of the sin bin, though, and so the penalty battle will take on an even greater importance tomorrow afternoon.

In any case, the players and coaches are not downplaying the importance of this game and weekend to the program as a whole. Captain Ian Slater feels that getting the first NCAA Tournament win in school history would be a major step for the program.

"Absolutely, we want to get that win. We really want to set in stone the school from a hockey standpoint, and concrete what we've done in the archives here at Western," Slater said.

Murray emphasized that the players should not feel they've won anything yet.

"We're thinking, 'Let's be national champions'", Murray said. "When we got to the Joe, every team got shirts and hats for reaching the CCHA final four, participation awards is what I called them. The other teams were wearing theirs around, and I wouldn't let our trainers give them out to our guys. I said we're not wearing them, because we don't want participation awards, we want the championship shirts they give out at the end. It's the same thing here, we're trying to win a national championship."

The matchup will take place at 1:30pm tomorrow afternoon at the XCel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. It will be televised by CW7 in the Kalamazoo area and available on ESPN3 nationwide.

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