MARQUETTE, Mich. — The Northern Michigan Wildcats (21-10-7) rebounded from a disappointing Friday performance to beat the Western Michigan Broncos (14-20-2), 4-2, at the Berry Events Center, evening the best-of-3 series between the two teams at one game apiece.
The Wildcats had a difficult time pulling the game out, however. The Broncos owned a 2-0 lead at the end of two periods before NMU came alive in the third, scoring four unanswered goals for the victory.
A shorthanded goal by junior winger Andy Contois lit a fire under the Wildcats, as the team put three markers up on the board in a span of 4:18.
“It was a great play by Dirk Southern,” said Contois. “He beat his guy off the draw and heard me hollering. I was breaking wide and he hit me with a great pass. It was kind of a lucky shot, and was fortunate enough that it went in.”
The goal sparked the team, as well as the Northern fans in the building. The Wildcats scored a power-play goal just over three minutes later, and the game winner shortly thereafter.
While Northern Michigan played a solid two periods leading into the final stanza, the Cats could not solve freshman goaltender Dan Bellissimo, who had shut Northern out for four consecutive periods of play. The Cats went into the locker room during the second intermission with their backs to the wall.
“We were just trying to stay positive,” said Contois. “Our back’s against the wall and our season is over if we don’t win that third period. Western has been playing us good all weekend. They’re definitely a dangerous team. Fortunately, the leaders took charge in our [locker] room and we got it done.
NMU head coach Walt Kyle has found this series a difficult one thus far.
“Western has played outstanding,” said Kyle. “Western has done a great job containing our team, and they’re a very difficult opponent. They’re a good team. We knew that coming in.”
Western Michigan took a 1-0 lead at the 14:50 mark of the opening period on a power-play goal. Senior captain Pat Dwyer notched his sixth goal of the year, repeatedly stabbing at the puck at the side of the Wildcat net and finally getting it past Tuomas Tarkki for the score. Jeff Pierce and Paul Szczechura added the assists.
Szczechura gave the Broncos a two-goal advantage at the 15:56 mark of the second period. After a Northern Michigan hold, Szczechura let a shot rip from the right circle seven seconds into the power play for his sixth goal of the season. The shot, ringing off the crossbar and caroming into the net, was unassisted.
The Wildcats exploded in the third period, ending a four-period scoring drought. Contois pulled the Wildcats to within one with a shorthanded goal at 2:08 of the period, ripping a shot from the top of the circle past Bellissimo. For Contois, the goal was his 19th of the year, assisted by Southern.
The Wildcats tied the game minutes later on a power-play goal. Jamie Milam fired a shot from the left point that found the five hole of the Western Michigan netminder to give him his 10th goal of the year. Nathan Oystrick and Darin Olver assisted.
Northern pulled ahead with the game winner just over a minute later. Contois let a wrist shot go from the top of the right circle that was redirected in by Southern for his 11th goal of the year.
“I was in the right spot at the right time, and I just sort of baseball-swung at it and it went in,” said Southern. “I thought it went in off somebody else.”
Western Michigan thought it had tied the game late in the third period, as an errant shot was deflected into the NMU goal. The goal was waved off, however; because the puck had been redirected into the net via a skate.
Kevin Gardner iced the game with an empty-net goal at 19:36 of the third period.
Kyle feels the ‘Cats and their fans need to keep the pressure on their opponents in the deciding game Sunday night.
“Tomorrow night’s key is to come out with the intensity and the focus we had during that 10-12 minute stretch in the third,” said Kyle. “We need people in the building. The crowd we had was unbelievable tonight when we got going. We need that energy.”
Tarkki was strong in goal again for the Wildcats, stopping 29 of 31 Bronco shots on goal. Bellissimo stopped 23 of Northern’s 26 shots.
The Wildcats finished the night 1 for 4 on the power play, while the Broncos ended up 2 of 4.
The teams will face off in the series finale Sunday night at 7:35 p.m.