KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Sophomore forward Pat Dwyer tallied just 14 seconds into the contest, the first of three unanswered Western Michigan goals in the first 11 minutes, and freshman forward Vince Bellissimo recorded a goal and two assists to help the Broncos cruise to a 4-1 victory over Findlay.
Dwyer streaked in from the red line and was taken down by an Oiler defenseman, but still was able to put the puck past senior goaltender Jamie VandeSpyker at :14 to put WMU up 1-0.
WMU head coach Jim Culhane was happy with the result but knows there needs to be improvement before the CCHA schedule kicks off again.
“In the second period, I think we got away from some of the things that we did well in the first period,” he said. “We didn’t execute with the puck that well at times, and it gave them some scoring opportunities that led to the goal. I thought we played well in the third period by generating a lot of scoring opportunities, but we didn’t make a good decision with the puck that became a turnover and led to some chances.”
WMU chased VandeSpyker at 10:32 of the first period in favor of junior goaltender Kevin Fines, who played well in relief, posting 20 saves in defeat. Sophomore goaltender Mike Mantua finished with 16 saves before being relieved by freshman goaltender Scott Foster at the second intermission.
“We just wanted to get him some minutes,” said Culhane. “Mike has played a ton for us going into the second half and I wanted to get Scotty some minutes in tonight’s hockey game before the second half of the season.
“We made that decision coming in. I told both guys before pregame skate today that the decision was already made regardless of the score; either they were each going to play half, or Mike was going to play two periods and Scott the third.”
WMU increased its all-time record against CHA teams to 6-2-0 and stoped a four-game losing streak, while Findlay remains winless at 0-4-0 against CCHA opponents. The loss is just the second in the Oilers’ last seven contests.
The Broncos made UF pay for its defensive lapses, including freshman forward Brent Walton’s goal at 4:15 of the first period. The Elmira, Ont., native became the CCHA’s rookie scoring leader by roofing his own rebound from the top of the crease over VandeSpyker to give WMU a two-goal advantage. Walton also leads the team with nine goals.
“Not only him, but a lot of guys played well,” said Culhane. “They all had a little more jump in their legs and I think that is attributed to the grind of the year. By coming back with a lot of energy and a lot of emotion, we played well.”
WMU took a commanding 3-0 lead at 10:32 of the first period when junior captain Dana Lattery took advantage of a bounce off the far boards from a Mat Ponto blast. The shot went wide of the net and bounced off the boards to a waiting Lattery on the other side of the net, who squeaked the puck in the net to put the Broncos up 3-0 and force Findlay head coach Craig Barnett to yank his goaltender in favor of Fines.
“I think Western Michigan is a great team,” said Barnett. “We didn’t play well in the first 10 minutes, we had three power-play opportunities in that span and we ended up down 3-0.
“That was kind of the way things went, but I give my guys credit, they fought back when it would have been easy to just throw the towel in. But they were able to make it 3-1, and that next goal was a good goal; we had a couple opportunities but Mantua made some big saves.
“Kevin Fines made some huge saves for us to allow us to get in the game. The next goal after 3-1 is a huge goal, but unfortunately, they got it to make it 4-1, and we lost because of our mistakes.”
Sophomore forward Rigel Shaw put the Oilers back into the game, scoring UF’s lone tally at 16:06 of the second period by stuffing a rebound in traffic past Mantua to cut the Bronco lead to 3-1.
“We started off a little bit slow,” said Fines. “But I thought we picked it up a little bit after the first 10 minutes. They dominated most of the play, but I thought with a little bit more effort and some bounces, we could have competed a little better.
“It’s a great privilege to play the CCHA schools. They are a great organization with great teams, and it picks our play up a little bit. It’s always fun to come play the CCHA teams.”
But Bellissimo put Findlay away for good by taking a rebound off the chest of Fines and putting in the net at 15:59 of the third to bring the game to its final score of 4-1.
Culhane was impressed with the play of Fines.
“He played great and made a lot of quality saves, especially in the second period. We had a number of scoring opportunities and he made a lot of great backdoor saves on two-on-ones.”
Barnett discussed the decision to start VandeSpryker against a CCHA club over Fines.
“We feel we have two real capable goaltenders. Jamie’s played really well in the first half for us; he kind of took the ball and ran with it for a while.
“Unfortunately tonight, he didn’t have much help in front of us. It took our guys 10 to 12 minutes to get into the game and Kevin played well last week, so he probably was a little bit sharper. In hindsight, we should have went the other way, but our problem isn’t going to be goaltending, it’s showing up to play from the get-go.”
Barnett also knows that scheduling CCHA schools helps prepare his team for conference play.
“That’s why they are on the schedule, they have to get us ready. We lost a late lead to Bowling Green; we had Miami in overtime one of the two games, so we know we can play with them. Tonight, if you take the first 10 minutes out, we can play with them. But the one thing the CCHA teams do to us is capitalize on our mistakes; they make us pay the price. So we have to pull positives out of these games and learn from our mistakes so when we go back into our conference play, we’ll be a better team.”
WMU (8-11-1) takes on Michigan in a home-and-home matchup next weekend, while Findlay (8-8-1) heads to Columbus, Ohio, to take on Ohio State January 7.