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Close games build UMD men's hockey experience

An overtime loss. A shootout win. An overtime win. A shootout loss. The Minnesota Duluth men's hockey team has run the gamut of close finishes the past two weeks. But that's nothing compared to Western Michigan, which has played seven consecutive...

An overtime loss. A shootout win. An overtime win. A shootout loss.

The Minnesota Duluth men's hockey team has run the gamut of close finishes the past two weeks.

But that's nothing compared to Western Michigan, which has played seven consecutive games decided by one goal or less, going 5-0-1 since a 4-3 loss in a series-ending game against UMD on Dec. 14.

So fans might be wise to expect another close matchup when the Bulldogs (10-9-3 overall, 5-6-1-1 NCHC) and 20th-ranked Broncos (12-8-4, 6-5-1-1) square off in a two-game National Collegiate Hockey Conference series, starting at 6:07 p.m. today at Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo, Mich.

"They are playing as well as anyone right now; they've had a great start to their second half," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "They are a very tough team to generate anything off of and are very good defensively. They play a similar style as Denver."

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That's who the Bulldogs played two weeks ago to begin their program-record-tying four-game OT run. A last-second, 5-4 win over Minnesota State-Mankato and a 4-4 overtime tie (and subsequent shootout loss) against No. 1 Minnesota at last week's North Star College Cup continued UMD's brush with close contests.

"It's good experience to play in those close games, and we've done well in a lot of those, which builds character for our team," junior winger Justin Crandall said. "Those four in a row are important for the young guys. Later in the year, you have to be used to winning one-goal games by grinding it out and, hopefully, find a way to win in overtime."

That's been the Broncos' method since former NHL coach Andy Murray was hired.

"We've had a lot of battles in the three years I've been here. We have to scrape and claw for everything we get," Murray said. "We're in survival mode every weekend. It's such a tough league with great teams. The level of competition is so intense that you're just trying to survive."

Western Michigan has won two overtime games and a shootout against St. Cloud State since its last loss before the New Year. The Broncos beat UMD 5-3 in the opener and lost 4-3 the next night. The team's recent run has it in fifth place, squarely in the NCHC race, four points behind co-leaders Denver and North Dakota and three points ahead of sixth-place UMD.

Despite their success in one-goal games, Murray isn't about to let it go to his players' heads.

"I never let our guys to use the word confident," he said. "What is confidence? If we could put our hand on it and you just needed it to play well, then I would give it to them all the time."

It's hard to deny confidence is building in a UMD locker room filled with underclassmen. Goaltender Aaron Crandall, Justin's older brother and one of just four seniors on the team, replaced Matt McNeely midway through the first Western Michigan game and hasn't been out of the lineup since as UMD has gone 5-1-2 (including an exhibition shutout).

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"I'm really excited for this series because we're starting to put everything together," said Aaron Crandall, who has been under as much pressure as any player in the tight finishes. "It's nerve-

wracking. In some of those games that are 4-4, maybe the stats aren't there but you might be needed to make a big save late. In three of those four games, we came from behind to force overtime, so it gives me a lot of trust in what we're doing up front."

Related Topics: HOCKEY
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