KALAMAZOO, Mich. — With their best months of the season behind them, both the Western Michigan Broncos and the Michigan Wolverines looked to Friday night’s match up as a chance to start the final month of the regular season with a hot start.
But, it was the number 11 ranked Wolverines (20-9-0 Overall, 15-6-0 CCHA) coming off their 6-1 month of January who earned the two points with the victory tonight, as senior center T.J. Hensick captured his 200th point of his Wolverine career with his Michigan squad knocking off the Broncos, 7-4 in Kalamazoo.
“He [Hensick] is the difference maker for us as a team and tonight no question,” said Red Berenson, Michigan head coach. “He has had two strong games in here this year now, and when you are looking for someone to make the big play, or score the big goal he’s your guy.”
The high-octane energy from the ‘Lawson Lunatics’ and the rest of the 3,842 fans saw both teams come out like they were shot out of a canon, as referee Scott Hoberg made sure the physicality and the high-emotion of both teams were held in check.
Hoberg and his crew whistled a total of nine first period penalties five power play chances for U of M and three special team chances for WMU (12-14-1 Overall, 9-11-1 CCHA).
“It was a very tough game to play, there were a lot of penalties called,” Berenson said. “We didn’t want to get into a penalty filled game, but our special teams were able to hold up. Obviously, we wanted to tighten up on our penalty kill situations, but our power play opportunities were able to make the difference for us tonight.”
Jumping off to a sizzling start, the Wolverines were able to cash in during sophomore WMU winger Matt Clackson’s interference call in front of penalty box at the 2:01 mark. A little over a minute later, junior Kevin Porter from the left-wing corner of the post swung a backwards pass back to a charging Andrew Cogliano in-front of the net, lighting the red lamp past Bronco goalie Daniel Bellissimo on the power play goal.
“Both teams I thought, played with a lot of energy and spirit in that first period,” said Jim Culhane, WMU head coach. “It was probably the most intense 20 minutes of hockey I have seen all season.”
Right back after capitalizing on their first extra-man advantage, U of M went right back on the power play again at 3:33 on a Chris Frank high-sticking penalty.
With the puck bouncing around the back of the net behind Bellissimo, Cogliano stopped the puck at the blue line, just as freshman Mark Letestu stole the puck off the sophomore center’s stick and raced down the right wing, all alone against Michigan net minder Billy Sauer as Letestu put his 17th goal of his freshman campaign between the pipes to even the score at one goal a piece on the short handed try.
“I think I caught Cogliano by surprise there, and I poked it off his stick,” Letestu said of his goal. “He didn’t’ get a piece of me going down, so I had the chance all alone and caught Sauer by surprise again, and went in between the legs.”
With four penalties being called in the following four minutes of action, both special teams on both sides of the glass were able to knock off their opponents’ power play teams.
“Special teams run a big part of today’s game of hockey,” Culhane said. “It is a very important part of hockey today, and they [Michigan] are very good. They were able to get three power play goals tonight, and we were able to get two ourselves, and a short handed as well tonight.”
During a stretch of four-on-four hockey, the Wolverines were able to take the lead back once again when Jason Dest chipped the puck up ahead to Hensick, as the senior found Travis Turnbull along the right wing firing a shot at the Bronco net minder, who looked to come up with the kick save, as the puck skidded backwards between the pipes.
The assist for Hensick was his first of two helpers on the night, but more importantly it moved Hensick into the 200 point club, the 12th Wolverine to accomplish such a feat.
At the 18:32 mark of the opening stanza, from the left-wing circle on their own power play chance the Broncos’ Jeff Pierce centered the puck through the Wolverine defense to the right corner across the crease, where senior Paul Szczechura chipped in the tying goal. The Broncos and Wolverines skated to a deadlock 2-2 tie after the first period of play.
“I think tonight we played a real well first period, kept with them for the first 20 minutes,” Letestu said. “But then, in the second we faded a little bit and we weren’t able to keep up the same intensity as in the first 20 [minutes]. It cost us.”
The turning point of the middle period came during a five-on-three advantage, in which WMU was not able to capitalize and turn the momentum of the game in their favor.
“If you look, the turning point wasn’t necessarily the goals we scored in the second, but it was the goals they didn’t score on their 5-3 man advantage,” Berenson said.
The third Michigan goal of the night came off the stick of defenseman Brandon Naurato rebound goal from the right wing circle from senior captain Matt Hunwick’s shot from the top of the point, whose shot was set up on a pass from Mark Mitera.
“Not scoring on the 5-3 wasn’t heartbreaking,” Culhane said. “But when’re looking for the momentum and your tied 2-2 at that point, if you are able to score you grab the momentum of the game. We weren’t able to do that, and that gave them some life and momentum.”
Coming right back at the 13:21 mark of the period, Hunwick cleared the puck out of the zone on a pass that met Porter at center ice, who then found Hensick down the right wing with a pass, as Hensick took it from there making a moved past the Bronco defense, faking a shot at the Bronco net minder, Bellissimo and banging home the goal into the back of the net for a 4-2 Wolverine advantage.
With less than a minute remaining in the second period, and a 4-2 advantage over the Broncos and another U of M power play opportunity from a Steve Silver slashing penalty, Hensick threw a shot over to defenseman Jack Johnson at the blue line who then fired a rocket through the Bronco zone, knocking home his sixth goal in three games off the cross-bar past Bellissimo, who tallied 29 saves on 35 Wolverine shots.
Trailing 5-2 heading into the final period of play, the Broncos came out fighting for a comeback, as they fired 10 shots at the Wolverine goalie, Sauer who came up with 20 saves on the night.
“I think it’s difficult against any opponent to come back from such a deficit,” Culhane said. “But, it’s the challenge in front of you that you have to face, you just have to buckle down and push forward, trying to get as many pucks on the net as possible.”
Cutting their deficit to 5-3 was Szczechura with the puck bouncing around the zone on a Bronco power play, as freshman Tyler Ludwig dropped a pass off to Letestu who then found the senior center in front of the net, sliding the puck into the back of the net.
With just about five minutes remaining in the game, Hensick chimed in once again on his second goal of the contest, and his fourth point on a shot from the left wing with the assists going to Johnson and Porter. The assist was Porter’s third of the night.
But, WMU battled back as senior Jason Moul chipped in the final WMU goal of the night on what was a stop-and-pop shot from the left side of the net in the air and over the right shoulder of Sauer. Frank and Ludwig were awarded the assists on the goal.
To seal the victory at the 18:50 point of the final period, Dest cleared a Bronco power play chance the length of the ice, hitting the empty-netter to clinch the 7-4 victory for his Wolverines.
“We knew that WMU was a different team than we played six weeks ago,” Berenson said. “They have improved a lot, they have a lot of momentum and confidence, and the pressure was on them tonight. I feel fortunate to get out of here with a win.”
Both teams will travel to Ann Arbor for the second game of the series at Yost Arena with a 7:30 face off scheduled.
“Tomorrow night, we need to bring what we brought in the first 20 minutes,” Letestu said. “We want a better effort for the full 60 minutes tomorrow night.”