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Goalie showdown looming? WMU’s Gorsuch putting up Shepard-like numbers in NCHC play

Goaltender Hunter Shepard (32) of the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs deflects a shot on goal against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks during Saturday's game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, Minn. Clint Austin / Forum News Service

KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- Junior forward Wade Allison has appeared in four games for Western Michigan this season since missing all of October recovering from last year’s season-ending knee injury.

The Broncos have won all four of those games, but the Philadelphia Flyers’ 2016 second-round draft pick isn’t the reason why, according to Western Michigan coach Andy Murray.

“The most important thing that has happened to us the last couple games is we’ve been getting some saves by our goaltender,” Murray said. “It’s great having Wade back, but that pales in comparison with Trevor Gorsuch having made some saves.”

Despite all the talent at forward and defense, Western Michigan struggled a year ago because it struggled in goal, going from third in the NCHC in 2017-18 back to the bottom half of the standings. Murray didn’t mince words this week, calling his goaltending “atrocious” when the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs visited Kalamazoo, Mich., late last season for a regular season series.

Fourth-ranked UMD-- which swept that series 8-0 and 6-1 -- is back at Western Michigan for a pair of NCHC contests at 6:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7-8, at Lawson Ice Arena. This time around, Murray believes the play of his goaltender is matching that of those in front of him, such as Allison.

Gorsuch, a senior who made one start and four appearances last season, has taken over as the starter. He has a .918 save percentage, 2.31 goals-against average and two shutouts in eight starts this season. In his four NCHC appearances -- a split against Nebraska-Omaha and sweep at North Dakota -- he boasts a .937 save percentage and 1.76 GAA.

Gorsuch’s numbers are second in the league to Bulldogs junior goaltender Hunter Shepard, the NCHC goaltender of the month for November. Shepard in six starts has a .946 save percentage and 1.18 GAA versus conference foes, including two shutouts.

“I was asked the other day what propelled Duluth to a national championship last year. I said compared to the start of their season, they found their goalie,” Murray said, praising Shepard. “To me, they had a goalie that had a high save percentage and low goals against. With that you have a chance to be successful.

“You can have forwards and good defense, but if you’re not getting good play from your goaltending position, it’s awfully tough.”

While Murray may be discounting the return of Allison, Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin is not, and rightfully so.

Allison was a bonafide Hobey Baker Memorial Award candidate prior to tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last January with 15 goals and 15 assists in 22 games. Despite missing the Broncos’ final 14 games of 2017-18, he still led the team in goals and was second in points.

“I think he’s an elite player. You saw the value of him being out of their lineup last year,” Sandelin said. “There is a reason they were talking about him for the Hobey Baker last year. He had a great start before he got hurt. They’ve probably done the right thing making sure he is real healthy before he gets into 120 minutes.”

Murray said Allison has been “totally healthy” since August, however, the wing needed more time to get comfortable with the aches and pains that follow an injury of that magnitude.

Allison finally made his season debut Nov. 9 in a 7-2 home win over Nebraska-Omaha, scoring a goal in the second period to give the Broncos a 5-0 lead. He sat out the next night, a 4-2 loss to the Mavericks, and was a late scratch on Nov. 16 at North Dakota.

He came back to play Nov. 17 in Grand Forks, registering a goal and an assist to help complete the sweep of the Fighting Hawks.

Last weekend, Allison played in both nonconference games against Niagara, a series the Broncos swept 3-2 and 7-3 to get back above the .500 mark for the first time since late October.

“They are playing with a lot of confidence right now sweeping North Dakota and sweeping Niagara. They are feeling pretty good about their game,” Sandelin said. “They have a lot of skill up front. We’re going to have to manage the puck and defend real well. Hopefully we can play a little more 5-on-5 time in the offensive zone than we did last Saturday.”

The 11 penalties and 33 penalty minutes the Bulldogs took last weekend in the 5-0 win and 2-1 loss against North Dakota at home were a season high, which had been previously set the night before when UMD took 10 penalties for 31 minutes.

The Bulldogs, who average 14.9 penalty minutes per night, and the Broncos (15.2) both rank in the top three in the NCHC in penalty minutes behind Omaha (17.6).

The Bulldogs’ penalty kill may be the best in the NCHC at 90.7 percent and 92 percent in league games, but they’d rather not use it.

“We just got to be a little bit more disciplined, stay out of the stuff after the whistle,” UMD sophomore wing Kobe Roth said. “Just play a hard game and keep working hard.”

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