MARQUETTE, Mich. — The Western Michigan Broncos (14-19-2, 9-18-2 CCHA) drew first blood in the race to the Super Six, stunning the Northern Michigan Wildcats, 2-1, at the Berry Events Center on Friday night to claim a 1-0 lead in a best-of-3 first-round CCHA playoff series.
“It was a one-goal game. It could have gone either way,” said Western Michigan coach Jim Culhane “This time of year, you’re obviously going to see the best out of both teams, and I think that’s what you saw tonight.”
Northern Michigan was off its game for much of the night, and Western capitalized.
“They played very well. You have to give them full credit, said Northern Michigan boss Walt Kyle. “They won a lot of battles and they executed that power-play goal on us. They outplayed us tonight. They deserved to win.
“We looked out of sync tonight, but again, you have to give them credit. They got in the lanes. They got sticks on passes. They were on top of people quickly, and that caused us some problems.”
Freshman goalie Dan Bellissimo, seeing his first collegiate playoff action, stood tall in net, stopping 23 of Northern’s 24 shots.
“I was really pleased,” said Culhane of his goaltender. “Danny made some big saves. There was a flurry there in the second period, and I think he made three consecutive saves that I would classify as big saves.”
Kyle would have liked his team to put more pressure on the rookie netminder.
“We didn’t get at [Bellissimo] as much as I’d like,” he said.
Northern Michigan struck for the first goal at the 12:33 mark of the opening period. Marquette native Rob Lehtinen scored his third goal of the season, picking up an errant rebound, skating between the circles and dishing the puck past Bellissimo. Jamie Milam and Bobby Selden assisted.
The Broncos tied the game late in the period. Freshman defenseman Nate Ansell scored his first collegiate goal by picking off a pass in the Wildcat zone and skating in alone to beat Tarkki top-shelf. The goal was unassisted.
Western Michigan took a 2-1 lead at 4:21 of the second period on a power-play goal. Junior winger Brent Walton notched his 21st marker and 50th overall point of the year on a redirect in front of the net that found its way past Tarkki. Jon Lupa and Ryan Mahrle picked up the assists.
Moments later, Bellissimo kept his team’s lead intact, making a terrific save on a breakaway attempt by Northern’s Mike Santorelli, who picked the pocket of a Western defenseman at neutral ice and skated in alone. It was one of Northern’s few quality chances on the evening.
Tarkki played well in net for NMU, stopping 32 of 34 shots on goal.
The Broncos finished the night 1-for-4 on the power play, while the ‘Cats were held scoreless in five attempts.
The two teams will square off again Saturday night at 7:35 p.m.
• This is the third meeting in the last five years between the two teams in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. NMU pulled out series victories against Western in both 2001 and 2003. The 2001 set was the most entertaining, as two of the three games went into overtime. The Wildcats are 5-2-1 overall against the Broncos in postseason play.
• Since rejoining the CCHA in the 1997-98 season, the Wildcats are 18-11 in CCHA tournament play, earning six trips to Joe Louis Arena in eight tries. Only Michigan and Michigan State have been to the hJoe more times since 1998.
• Since their last appearance at the Joe in 1994, Western Michigan has dropped 19 of 22 playoff games, including four overtime contests. That streak has included dropping eight straight first-round series. The Broncos’ last series victory in the playoffs occurred against Notre Dame in 1994.
• Walton stretched his point streak to seven games with his second-period goal. The junior from Elmira, Ont., has 21-29–50 totals for the season.
• In all 10 of Northern Michigan’s losses this season, the Wildcats have scored one goal or fewer.