KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Heartbreaker For Niagara; WMU Triumphs Over CHA Champs
by Craig Pilawski/ USCHO Arena Reporter
A penalty-filled nailbiter gave the home fans at Lawson Arena something to smile about Friday, as Western Michigan’s Ryan Mahrle got the chance every hockey player dreams of.
With the game tied at 3 late in the third period, visiting Niagara’s defense collapsed to leave Mahrle open with 22 seconds left. Mahrle made no mistake, sliding to his backhand for the goal that gave the Broncos a 4-3 home victory before 2,171 fans.
“When I first got it, I felt it was behind me but I realized there was no one around, and by that time I put it on my backhand and had an open net. I knew it was the last shot of the game … I wanted to cash in on that opportunity and get the win.”
The third period had started in the Broncos’ favor, as left winger Mike Lesperance put on some fancy stick work, slithering his way through the Niagara defense to net a backhander short-side, putting WMU up 3-2 with his first goal of the year.
The penalties continued for WMU, but netminder Daniel Bellissimo stayed focused by putting up a wall during a Niagara power play. And with six minutes to go in regulation, Niagara’s Sean Bentivoglio missed high on a breakaway from the blue line.
Although the chances seemed to slip away from Niagara, the Purple Eagles continued to pressure, tying the game 3-3 at 14:24, after center Matt Caruana slapped home his own rebound off a loose puck in front. That set up Mahrle’s heroics.
Western Michigan head coach Jim Culhane knew that CHA member Niagara was tough, and made sure his team was prepared accordingly.
“We studied them on the game film; we knew what we were in for. They’re no different than any CCHA team we play in the league.”
Early on, the referees took control as Lesperance was called for obstruction-tripping at 1:52 of the first only to be followed by Caruana 23 seconds later.
Shortly thereafter the scoring started, as Niagara’s Ryan Gale nailed his first of two goals on the night at 3:26 of the first, from a pass by team captain Barret Ehgoetz with a wrist shot from the left circle, beating Bellissimo.
Western Michigan was quick with a response as the No. 1 star of the game, Brent Walton, hit his eighth of the season by gathering a loose puck in front of the net and beating Niagara goalie Allen Barton between the pads.
Gale gave Niagara a 2-1 lead almost six minutes into the first with a blistering snap shot that sailed over the right shoulder of Bellissimo and underneath the crossbar.
Play was fast through the second period. Western Michigan started off with a power play, and Niagara was quick to head back to the box — and not just one at a time, as defenseman Pat Oliveto and Gale each committed penalties at 11:13 of the second, giving WMU a full two minutes of five-on-three.
The Purple Eagles kept at it with a penalty from Ehgoetz for crosschecking at 12:16, and the Broncos didn’t waste time capitalizing.
WMU captain Pat Dwyer made a heads-up play to deflect a one-time shot from Daryl Moore at the right point. The puck flew over the shoulder of Barton to tie the game at 2.
Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder kept his team focused despite the penalties.
“Everyone across the country is getting used to it. You just have to adapt to it and persevere through it as best you can.”
The Purple Eagles will be back Saturday night at Lawson in hopes of a different outcome. The puck drops at 7:35.