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Western Michigan bringing new formula to North Dakota

GRAND FORKS -- One by one, University of North Dakota men's hockey players left the locker room and slowly walked across the hall. They entered another room. It was filling up. Mark Poolman, the athletic trainer, was the busiest man on the team. ...

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UND's Joel Janatuinen (25), right, takes a shot against Western Michigan's Scott Moldenhauer (15) during the first period at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. on Saturday, March 5, 2016. (Joshua Komer/Forum News Service)
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GRAND FORKS - One by one, University of North Dakota men's hockey players left the locker room and slowly walked across the hall.

They entered another room.

It was filling up.

Mark Poolman, the athletic trainer, was the busiest man on the team.

UND may have swept Western Michigan with back-to-back, down-to-the-wire victories last February in Kalamazoo's Lawson Ice Arena, but it paid the price.

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Since the two teams started playing again in 2012 after a decade-plus drought, UND has become accustomed to seeing the same style of game from the Broncos year in and year out.

Sixth-year Western Michigan coach Andy Murray, who previously served as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues, has recruited an NHL-sized roster. The Broncos have been college hockey's heaviest team in each of the last three seasons.

And with that size, they play a physical, pounding style of game.

Western Michigan's opponents may win - Murray is 87-87-30 with the Broncos - but they rarely get away from that series unscathed.

Last season's series was a perfect example. Sure, UND left Kalamazoo with two wins, but they left town banged up and got swept at Denver the following weekend - the only time the Fighting Hawks lost back-to-back games all season.

This year's Bronco team is a bit different.

It still has the size - the Broncos are still the heaviest team in college hockey - but they've made significant upgrades to their skill level and it has paid off.

Western Michigan is averaging 3.64 goals per game - the first time the program has hit the 3-goals-per game mark in a decade (3.24 in 2006-07).

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Western Michigan's power play is converting at 22.1 percent - higher than any mark it has reached in the past decade.

It has added up to a 7-4-3 start, a No. 18 national ranking and a win on the road at No. 1 Minnesota Duluth.

"They've added some offensive weapons in their lineup," UND coach Brad Berry said. "Players who can not only shoot the puck, but they also have very good team speed coming through the neutral zone. Again, they are a really good defending team. Now, they have some finishers to go along with their team speed."

The leaders have been sophomore Matheson Iacopelli, sophomore Griffen Molino and freshman Wade Allison.

Iacopelli scored more goals by Thanksgiving than any Bronco did all of last season. He ranks second in the nation and first in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference with 13.

Molino led the Broncos in scoring a year ago as a freshman and is getting attention from NHL scouts as an undrafted free agent.

Allison was the United States Hockey League playoff MVP a season ago and is the second-highest drafted Western Michigan player ever. Dave Hakstol's Philadelphia Flyers picked him in the second round in June (the third-highest drafted Bronco ever is Grafton's Lee Brodeur).

Those three have combined for 38 points in 14 games.

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"They have some big bodies up front and they skate extremely well," Berry said. "Obviously, they are well coached with Andy Murray having a lot of experience. They've built that group the last two or three years to where they are now."

Western Michigan is guaranteed to be over .500 at Christmas for the first time in four years, and the Broncos are searching for more in Ralph Engelstad Arena (7:37 tonight, 7:07 p.m. Saturday).

"I think the bottom line is you have to play well at North Dakota," Murray said. "If you don't, you have an opportunity to be embarrassed and nobody likes that type of feeling. Certainly, there's energy in the building. It's a tremendous facility."

Regional sold out

A limited number of NCAA West Regional tickets sold out in less than a minute Thursday morning.

The regional will be played in Fargo's Scheels Arena in March. The venue seats only 5,000 people.

About 800 tickets are blocked off as allotments for participating teams. Most others went on sale to UND Champions Club members last month.

The remaining tickets were quickly sold during Thursday's mornings online-only campaign.

If UND makes the NCAA tournament, it will automatically be placed in Fargo. The regional will be March 24-25. Game times won't be set until the week of the event.

Additional tickets could go on sale the week of the regional if participating teams return tickets.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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