KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Sophomore goaltender Mike Mantua earned his second consecutive Perani Cup No. 1 Star of the Game with 32 saves and 13 different Broncos recorded points to lead Western Michigan to a 7-3 non-conference victory over Niagara.
The Broncos scored twice within 26 seconds in the first period and tallied four unanswered goals in the second period to build a comfortable lead in front of 2,546 at Lawson Ice Arena. Junior forward Paul Davies and freshman forward Brent Walton both scored a pair of goals, while freshman forward and NHL draft pick Vince Bellissimo recorded a goal and two assists for the Broncos (5-7-1, 4-6-0 CCHA).
Niagara junior goaltender Rob Bonk struggled for the Purple Eagles by allowing five goals on 16 shots before being replaced by sophomore Ryan MacNeil at 10:40 of the second period. Junior forward Joe Tallari kept the game from getting out of hand by contributing two goals and an assist in defeat.
Despite being out shot by NU 35-27, the hot play of Mantua coupled with receiving a number of bounces helped the Broncos prevent the Purple Eagles (4-9-0, 1-1-0 CHA) from getting back into the contest. The struggling WMU defense continued to give NU prime scoring opportunities low in the defensive zone, including a shot from a NU player that hit the post and ended under Mantua while the netminder was laying on his back late in the third period.
WMU head coach Jim Culhane knows the score is not an accurate representation of the game.
“I told the team that if it wasn’t for the play of Mike Mantua, the game would have been 7-5 or 7-6. We took too many penalties, again, including four in the first period to give them the goal…(with the number of) scoring opportunities (allowed) defensively, we have a lot of work to do.
“I still think we played well enough to win the game, but some nights as we’ve seen, we’re not going to score seven goals. We need to win games 2-0 or 1-0 and we wouldn’t have done that without Mike.”
The Broncos rushed to a 2-0 lead early in the first period by charging the net and finishing plays. Walton tallied at 4:12 by banging home a loose puck, stick-side of Bonk and junior forward Paul Davies tallied his first of two goals by poking in a shot during a gathering in front of the NU net at 4:38.
“I’m getting more comfortable with the league,” said Walton, explaining his recent hot play. “Being a first year player, it takes some time to get comfortable…my line mates are playing real well; I played with Bellissimo and (Jeremy) Cheyne tonight and both of them are playing great, as well.”
Three consecutive Bronco penalties gave NU many chances to tally with the man-advantage, and the Purple Eagles cashed in to cut the lead to 2-1 when junior defenseman Andrew Nahirniak roofed a blast from the point past Mantua at 12:41 of the first period.
By coming within five minutes of taking four points from erratic-Michigan State in East Lansing, NU had more than a good chance of beating a WMU squad that had only won twice in its last ten games. But those hopes were washed away 27 seconds into the second period by an Andy Townsend goal that was the first of four consecutive goals for the Broncos. The senior defenseman put a wrist shot from the point past a screened Bonk to put WMU on top 3-1.
Mantua extended his scoring streak to two games when he hooked up Davies with a pass the length the ice which allowed the forward to skate in untouched before deking past Bonk at 8:55 for his second goal of the contest, and increase the lead to 4-1.
“I’ve been very impressed with his preparation during the week in practice,” said Culhane about Mantua, “and his focus during games…his confidence level continues to grow with every save he makes…but we need to play better so that Mike doesn’t need to make all the big saves for us.”
Davies gave credit to Mantua for helping the team to its second consecutive victory.
“We struggle a bit defensively and by knowing that your goaltender is going to make big saves, you’re not as afraid to make mistakes, and for the second game in a row, he stepped up big for us.”
While NU couldn’t get a break, the Broncos continued to make the Purple Eagles pay for defensive breakdowns, including Bellissimo’s tally at 10:40 of the second period. On a 2-on-0 break, Brent Rumble hooked up the 5th-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers with a pass across the slot and Bellissimo one-timed a shot past Bonk to make the score 5-1.
WMU took advantage of another loose puck near the NU net at 16:02 of the second period when sophomore forward Pat Dwyer beat MacNeil deep in the offensive zone to give the Broncos an insurmountable 6-1 lead.
Despite the huge deficit to overcome, NU didn’t give up, and Tallari helped keep the score respectable by tallying twice to cut the Bronco lead to 6-3. The Thunder Bay, Ont., native tallied by putting a nice move on a Bronco defender and putting the puck past Mantua at 19:41 of the second period before tallying his team-leading 15th goal of the season 56 seconds into the third period.
Walton’s tally at 7:49 of the third period cemented the victory for WMU.
Culhane knows the Broncos need to reduce the number of penalties taken in order to remain competitive.
“We took seven or eight minor penalties and that’s too many. (Niagara’s) power play is so good, you’re going to give them 12, 14, or 15 shots right there, and we have to eliminate that by playing more disciplined.”
“We’re going to work on (playing better defensively) all next week.”
Niagara is idle next week while WMU returns to CCHA action with a pair of home games against Lake Superior State in Kalamazoo, November 29-30.