Since the calendar flipped to 2017, Western Michigan is 9-3-2, including an 8-3-1 record in NCHC play that vaulted the Broncos from a home ice contender to a home ice lock heading into the final weekend of the regular season.
Since Jan. 13, UMD is 8-0-3, and over those 11 games, the Bulldogs have conceded just ten even-strength goals. Three of them came in last Friday's 3-3 tie with Miami.
Western Michigan plays a very difficult style for opponents. But things are different. Go back to before the teams met in Duluth in November, when I visited with WMU coach Andy Murray and asked him about how he's adjusted to the way NCHC teams play.
“When you have a poor year as we did last year, you have to take a look at what you’re doing and how you can improve," he said. "I think we changed our methodology. You’re foolish if you stay the same when it’s not working.”
What changed? This team has more speed and skill, for starters. The emergence of Corey Schueneman and Cam Lee gives WMU some serious mobility on the blue line. Up front, three-year captain Sheldon Dries is having another stellar season.
"He is our motor on our team," Murray said this week. "He thinks he's six-foot-four and plays in a five-nine body, but competes and battles and likes going up against other teams' best players."
Dries has produced this year, with 12 goals and 25 points. He has plenty of help, too. Sophomore Matheson Iacopelli was a revelation when these teams met earlier in the season. As teams have started paying more attention to him, he hasn't slowed down one bit. Iacopelli has 19 goals and 31 points to lead the team, and he's a very strong All-NCHC candidate.
(Dries, by the way, should be a good candidate for the league's Best Defensive Forward honors at the awards show before the Frozen Faceoff. But no one asked me.)
Flyers draft pick Wade Allison, a freshman, has 11 goals and 24 points. Sophomores Griffen Molino and Colt Conrad both have double-digit goals and 24 points. Molino will be a guy to watch after the season, as it sounds as if NHL teams are sniffing.
Schueneman and Lee lead a revamped defense that is mobile and can move the puck and join the rush. Lee is going to be a good one, he's only a freshman and has really emerged in the second half.
"They give us some mobility back there that maybe we've lacked in the past," Murray said, adding senior Taylor Fleming is another guy who can skate for the Broncos. "They've helped us move the puck more effectively than we did last year."
"They're a hard team to play against," UMD sophomore forward Adam Johnson said this week. "Always real physical. They've got some skill players and some guys who can score."
"They're fast, they hit hard, they block shots, they do things right," senior defenseman Brenden Kotyk said. "Obviously having Andy Murray as a coach will help that."
"I'm very impressed with their team," Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. "They've done a really good job of adding more speed and skill to their lineup. It's not just one or two lines. It's lines one through four."
Of course, Western's opponent this weekend isn't exactly a slouch. Much like the Broncos, UMD doesn't have a star carrying the water. Or even a line. Behind senior Alex Iafallo's 34 points are four guys -- Neal Pionk, Adam Johnson, Joey Anderson, and Dominic Toninato -- in the 20s. Four Bulldogs have double-digit goals, and eight players are double-figures in points over the 22 NCHC games to date.
On UMD, Murray says "Tremendous, physical, they play hard-nosed hockey, in your face, can skate, good in transition."
Sounds like the kind of hockey both teams -- locks for the NCAA Tournament -- will see later in March. No better time to prepare than now.
Lots of work for UMD in practice this week on its defensive play. As assistant Jason Herter told me, it isn't that guys aren't working hard.
"We preach backchecking," he says. "And they backcheck so hard they take themselves out of position. We're trying to get our guys to settle their game down, understand what their job is."
Kotyk said there will be breakdowns, even in the NHL, but "you have to focus on your job.
"We have to make sure our defensive play is really tight."
He says communication is a huge key. Guys have to constantly be talking as they come back defensively.
"The defense start it on a rush," he said. "We can see the whole play. Forwards just turning around from the net can't really see what's going on. It's nice for us to be able to say 'Take far guy,' for example. It also identifies your man as you get into the zone."
UMD's rush coverage has broken down a couple times this season, most recently in the Thursday win over Miami. It's not the only wart Sandelin has found, but it's been a focus this week with the Broncos and then what should be a fantastic NCHC playoff on the horizon.
"Guys are working hard," he said. "We just need to work a little smarter.
"Our first forward back is usually low, and there's been some confusion. Sometimes it's a wing, and the center has to identify that. Sometimes, he gets caught low, and it leaves some gaps. It's just some more communication, reading, simplify things a little bit."
Sandelin also mentioned the team's inability to put opponents away recently. Up 2-0 on Colorado College, the Bulldogs missed a couple chances to make it 3-0 early, then ran into penalty trouble and had to settle for a tie and shootout win. Up 2-0 against Miami last Thursday, UMD had a long shift in the offensive zone, couldn't generate even a great scoring chance, much less the third goal, and eventually Miami scored off a rush to get on the board. Next thing you know, the game is tied and UMD has to grind out a win in the third period. The Bulldogs led 3-2 in Friday's game before Miami got a late equalizer and then an extra point in three-on-three overtime.
"We haven't been able to find the third goal," Sandelin said. "We've left some plays on the rink and missed some opportunities, you have to find a way to get that next goal."
That said, UMD is still unbeaten in 11, and while there might be some things Sandelin and the coaches see that cause aggravation, it's hard to complain about an 11-game unbeaten run against the competition the Bulldogs face on a regular basis.
Haven't talked much about the Penrose Cup. Frankly, it's still attainable, but you all know the odds are long.
Here's what UMD needs to win the Penrose Cup.
Sweep Western Michigan, and have Denver get no more than two points -- in any way -- out of Omaha. If DU gets two points out of one game and is beaten in regulation in the other, the teams would be tied at 55 points, and UMD would win the tiebreaker based on head to head goals (6-5 in that December series in Denver).
Sweep Western Michigan, and have Denver get one or zero points out of Omaha, and UMD wins the Penrose outright.
UMD can win with a five-point weekend, but only if Denver is swept. Otherwise, the Pioneers will have the league wins tiebreaker.
If UMD gets four points or less out of the series, Denver wins the Penrose without getting a point.
While UMD's players still want to win the league, they also know the more realistic outcome is a second-place finish that will probably send Miami back to Duluth for a best-of-three series next weekend.
"We're not out of it," Johnson said. "We just gotta to try to keep improving and put the pressure on them."
By staying the course and improving against a really good opponent this weekend, UMD also sets the course for a playoff run that starts in a week. After next week, everything left is one-and-done for the Bulldogs, with the obvious goal of getting to Chicago and the Frozen Four.