KALAMAZOO, Mich. — The Western Michigan Broncos jumped into a tie for seventh place in the CCHA with Lake Superior State after defeating conference foe Alaska, 2-1, Friday night at Lawson Ice Arena.
Coming into Friday night’s match-up, the Nanooks (9-14-6 Overall, 7-11-5 CCHA) and the Broncos were deadlocked in a three-way tie for eighth place with Northern Michigan. Each team had 19 points. Behind two goals from junior Brian Bicek and a 26 save performance by Bronco freshman net minder Riley Gill, the Broncos escaped a hard fought CCHA battle with the two points.
“I thought it was a hard fought game, like we had talked about it was going to be coming into the week,” said Jim Culhane, WMU head coach. “The emotions and intensity we knew were going to be riding high this time of the year, with the playoffs right around the corner. What you saw tonight, will be seen not just here for the rest of the year, but throughout the conference.”
The Broncos (13-15-1 Overall, 10-12-1 CCHA) were able to kill a quick Nanook power play opportunity, and then able to cash in on their first special team chance at the 12:39 mark of the opening stanza as Bicek crashed the front of the net, taking a pass from senior Paul Szczechura punching in the opening goal of the game.
Freshman Mark Letestu produced an assist as well, as he dropped the puck down to Szczechura inside the left-circle.
But not wasting much time to open up their scoring on the night was freshman winger Brandon Knelsen, who pounded home a rebound try off a friendly Nanook bounce from Gill’s pads on a bullet fired by Nathan Fornataro on their second power play of the period. Darcy Campbell earned his 20th assist on the goal.
Holding to a 1-1 tie heading into the first intermission, UA and WMU nearly skated to a stalemate in every statistical category with the Nanooks holding a slight two goal shot advantage, 9-7, over the Broncos.
“I thought we generated a lot of really solid scoring chances all night,” said Tavis MacMillan, UA head coach. “I thought Gill played very well, I was very impressed with his play tonight. The difference was they converted on their two chances, and we only got the one goal.”
Both teams came out in the middle period just like they ended the first, fighting for loose pucks, but it was the Broncos who were able to knock home the eventual game winning goal early into the second period on Bicek’s second goal of the contest.
“It was just off the break, and I think one of their ‘D’ stepped up, and made sort of a 2-1 with a guy back checking right off me,” Bicek said. “Pierce [Jeff] put up a good shot, on their goalie [Wylie Rogers] and I just went hard to the net, and banged it in off my skate.”
The two Bicek goals, proved to be enough for the Broncos to hold off the charging Nanooks through the rest of the second period, along with the final period.
“I think you start with Riley and move from there,” Culhane said about his team’s performance about holding onto their one-goal lead. “It was a great defensive effort by everyone contributing. Again, for us to be successful that’s the type of team we are, everyone contributing and grinding games out.”
Grinding the final period out, is exactly what WMU did as Gill made 10 impressive saves throughout the final period when UA threw everything at him but the kitchen sink.
“That final period for us with our shots came out of a little desperation,” MacMillan said. “I told the guys, however that we need to start tomorrow just like we finished today.”
Taking the two points out of the victory tonight, the Broncos will head into tomorrow’s afternoon contest with the Nanooks, with hopefully a little more bounce in their step for the whole 60 minutes of play.
“I think we need to come out tomorrow with more jump in our step,” Bicek said.
“It’s going to be another close game, and I think we are going to have to get to the net like we did tonight. I think it’s going to be a little higher scoring.”
With 17 saves on the night, Nanook net minder Wylie Rogers falls to a 4-9-4 on the season, as Gill improved his freshman campaign season to 8-6-1 with 26 saves.
The Nanooks and Broncos take the ice for a rare 4:35 matinee face off with the game being televised on FSN Detroit. The game is part of Michigan’s Hockey Day, a yearly event that showcases the sport.