KALAMAZOO, Mich. — On a day full of festivities in the state for Hockey Day in Michigan, the Western Michigan Broncos moved two points further ahead of the Alaska Nanooks in the CCHA standings completing the weekend sweep 3-1.
With both teams starting the series tied with 19 a piece, the Broncos have now positioned themselves nicely with four games remaining, in place to host a first-round CCHA tournament game Mar. 2-4. The Broncos were able to unlock the 1-1 deadlock tie with the Nanooks on junior Brian Bicek’s third goal of the series and sophomore winger Jeff LoVecchio’s empty-netter with just 22 seconds remaining.
“We talked about it going into the weekend, the intensity and emotions that would be in these games,” said Jim Culhane, WMU head coach. “It was 1-1 after 40 minutes of play, and I thought we really raised our game in the third period.”
Raising their game, in fact they did as the Broncos came out of the second intermission skating hard and determined to finish the sweep of UA and send them home with zero points from the weekend series.
Despite only getting six shots during the final 20 minutes of play, the Broncos made sure that those six shots they did get on junior net minder Wylie Rogers really counted, giving themselves the chance for the sweep.
“It’s something we talk about all the time,” Culhane said about getting pucks to the net. “We have to get the puck to the net, get the puck to the net. But, give them full credit because they play the type of defensive set, the left-wing lock, that doesn’t give you many chances.”
“It seems like in the start of the game, it’s something we need to look for more, getting that one extra pass in-front of the net,” he said.
Less than five minutes into the final period of play, the Broncos’ senior Paul Szczechura won a face off clean deep in their zone, as the puck popped out of the scrambled players out to the blue line, where Bicek took it from there on a breakaway chance against the Nanook net minder Rogers as he saw Bicek stop, fake a shot and then slap the forehand try past the confused UA goalie moving WMU to a 2-1 advantage at that juncture of the game.
“It’s a move I started a working on while playing junior hockey,” Bicek said. ” Tonight, when the puck popped out, I was pretty much going full speed from inside our zone, I looked back at the red line and didn’t see anyone too close since it’s a move that takes a little space, and I just fired away with it.”
As the Broncos took the third period lead, and sealing the victory with the empty-net finisher with LoVeechio’s center ice flip through the UA zone, the Nanooks however, got the scoring started first in the second period on a Nathan Fornataro bullet from inside the blue line.
Moving the puck, around the zone was UA’s top players Curtis Fraser and Kyle Greentree, as Greentree found the defenseman Fornataro on the right wing side of the Bronco zone.
Coming into the weekend, Greentree had 35 total points on the season while Fraser was second on the team with 29 points, as each leave Kalamazoo with one assist.
“It’s a broken record for us now, another strong effort and ending with no results,” said Tavis MacMillan, UA head coach. “Now, we are starting to get the goaltending, but we don’t have the guys putting the pucks in the net. We’re getting opportunities, creating chances, but every time we had a scramble around their net we couldn’t finish like they did.”
Delivering the equalizing tying goal of the period, was Szczechura who intercepted a Nanook pass a the center line, slicing his way through two UA defenders with the help from sophomore winger Matt Clackson, who put a good hit on a Nanook, helping free Szczechura in the zone, as he flipped a winner over the right shoulder of Rogers underneath the cross-bar.
Good goaltending proved to be the difference once again as freshman Bronco goaltender Riley Gill came up with 32 big saves on 33 Nanook shots with Rogers stopping 17 WMU shots.
“Riley has been playing great as of late, and done a real solid job for us in his rookie season,” Culhane praised of his freshman net minder. “Both guys [junior Dan Bellissimo and Gill] have played great all year. We are in an ideal situation as a program, having confidence in both our goal tenders.”
Following this weekend, UA will host Notre Dame next weekend looking to rebound after two losses to the Broncos.
“It’s going to be very similar next weekend against ND,” MacMillan said. “ND plays a very similar game like Western, but just to a different level. That is why they are one of the top teams in the country.
The Broncos will look to take the confidence of the weekend sweep against the Nanooks into their home and home series with Michigan State, in a Friday night match up which will also be senior night.
“What we have next weekend against MSU is our final home regular season game, and we will be honoring five seniors,” Culhane said. “Hopefully, we can have a sellout here and have a great final home sendoff for our senior class.”
With a 7:35 slated face off time for WMU and MSU in Lawson Ice Arena, Feb. 16, UA will take center ice with the Fighting Irish at 7:05.