GRAND FORKS — Offense was supposed to be Western Michigan’s problem this season.
The Broncos lost three of the top 13 goal-scorers in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference in would-be junior Matheson Iacopelli, who signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, senior Sheldon Dries and would-be junior Griffen Molino, who signed with the Vancouver Canucks.
Add in the early signing of would-be senior Freddy Tiffels (Pittsburgh Penguins) and the graduation of six other seniors and Western Michigan lost more than 55 percent of its goals from last year’s team — second-most in the NCHC.
But a weird thing has happened this season.
Entering this weekend’s two-game series with the University of North Dakota (7:37 p.m. tonight, 7:07 p.m. Saturday, Ralph Engelstad Arena), the Broncos are actually averaging more goals per game this season (3.67) than they did last season (3.33).
“We lost some quality players,” Western Michigan coach Andy Murray said. “But we’ve got a small senior class this year and they’ve been outstanding. They’ve set a really good standard from the beginning of the year. Somebody’s got to score goals and we’ve been scoring by committee. We’ve had a lot of players involved. We have no choice. Someone has to score the goals.”
Western Michigan, which currently sits in first play in the NCHC at 5-1, has had some impressive offensive outbursts in each of its last four weeks.
In early November, the Broncos swept No. 1 Denver, piling up 13 goals on the weekend. They torched reigning Mike Richter Award winner Tanner Jaillet for six goals one night.
The next weekend, Western Michigan had a five-goal night against defending national runner-up Minnesota-Duluth. The following weekend, the Broncos scored nine times against Nebraska-Omaha.
And a week ago, Western Michigan scored five times on Colgate goalie Colton Point, who entered that series with a .952 save percentage and one loss in 12 starts.
The key goal-scorers have been linemates Wade Allison, Colt Conrad and Dawson DiPietro.
Allison, a second-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers who had a hand in all four Western goals in The Ralph last season, and Conrad, a Manitoban who played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, were expected to have strong years.
DiPietro, who was scratched in all but one game a season ago, has been one of college hockey’s biggest surprises. He has 16 points in 15 games.
“That’s a great story,” Western Michigan captain Scott Moldenhauer said. “He just stuck to it. Last year, it was unfortunate he didn’t get in. But he had a great summer. He worked very hard and it’s paying off on the ice. Everyone is seeing it. He had belief in himself and he’s doing an amazing job for us.”
UND coach Brad Berry said that starting goalie Cam Johnson, who has missed the last eight games with a lower-body injury, should be available for this weekend’s series.
But it won’t be an easy one for Johnson and North Dakota.
“Western Michigan ... every year, they have a big, physical team,” Berry said. “They have a big, physical team that plays with pace. They’ve lost players. We’ve lost players. But they haven’t dropped the bar in how they play. We’re expecting a big team coming in here that’s going to try to play fast. We have to make sure we’re ready for that.”