BUFFALO, N.Y. — Learning how to win is the key to a successful season for a young team.
At this point, Western Michigan’s youngsters are maturing faster than Niagara’s.
Ben Gagnon scored the decisive goal at 3:21 of overtime to lead the 13th-ranked Broncos to a 4-3 win in the opening game of the Punch Imlach College Hockey Showcase at HSBC Arena.
Western Michigan (8-1-1), winner of seven straight games, trailed 3-1 with 12:06 remaining in regulation. But the nation’s highest-scoring team (5.6 goals per game) received a couple breaks in the form of two high-sticking penalties against the Purple Eagles (1-6-3) to forge a rally. David Gove and Steve Rymsha netted power-play goals to force overtime.
Western Michigan finished 3-for-4 on the power play, while Niagara went 0-for-4. The Eagles are winless in their last five games.
“This is all new to us. We only won 12 hockey games last year,” winning coach Jim Culhane said. “We’re just learning that regardless of the score, you never quit. You never lay down. You keep working hard and a bounce or two or maybe a shot or two, you can challenge to get back into the game.”
For Niagara, it was a different game with the same ending. The Eagles played much better Saturday than they did in a 4-1 loss to the Broncos on Friday, and had a chance to win. But the rebuilding Purple Eagles imploded when it mattered most.
“We did an awful lot of good things, but the fact is we’ve done that all year. We don’t have enough guys that know how to get it done when it counts,” NU coach Blaise MacDonald said. “We’ve played 10 games, six have been in overtime and we played well enough to win all six of those games, but have not gotten it done. We haven’t got the big save when we need it. We haven’t gotten somebody burying the puck when we needed to.”
The game-winning goal sums up Niagara’s season.
Josh Akright flipped the puck from the neutral zone into NU’s end. Three Niagara players and Gove skated toward the puck on the left side, but Gove managed to knock the puck through to Gagnon, who was all alone between the hash marks. He deked Rob Bonk and roofed a shot over the fallen Eagles goalie.
Gove blasted a shot into the low left corner through a screen to pull the Broncos within 3-2 at 10:21 of the third period. Rymsha tied it at 16:07, standing right between the faceoff circles uncovered and burying a pass from Jeff Campbell past a helpless Bonk.
Freshman Hannu Karru scored two goals for the Purple Eagles, while Thomas Clayton scored a shorthanded marker.
Jeff Campbell opened the scoring on the power play for the Broncos at 4:42 of the second period.
MacDonald said it’s simple to pinpoint why the Eagles, who lost 15 seniors from last year’s team that made the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, have not responded in crunch time through the season’s first 10 games.
“I think it’s attributed to our players’ work habits and self-discipline in practice,” MacDonald said. “They don’t bear down and … we can’t stop practice every single time a guy isn’t bearing down. We expect them to be mature enough to do it on their own. I can provide discipline. They must provide self-discipline and that’s the best type.”
“That’s what we should have realized a long time ago, but this has to be the time,” Karru said. “One-third of the season is gone and we have yet to realize this is the time. This wasn’t the first wakeup call, but it was a major one. We had the game right in our hands, but we didn’t do the things we were supposed to do.”
Western Michigan sophomore goalie J.J. Weaks started for the first time in his career and made 25 saves. Bonk finished with 32 saves for Niagara.