KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Even with just three wins in the CCHA this season coming into Friday night’s game, the Western Michigan Broncos (8-24-3 overall, 4-21-2 CCHA) could sense the win over the No. 11 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The Broncos used two goals in the second period to net a 3-0 shutout win inside Lawson Ice Arena in their final home regular season game. After a season full of struggles, the Broncos’ senior class ended their home career with yet another win against a nationally ranked opponent.
“In the dressing room before we even stepped onto the ice, you could just feel it,” said Broncos’ defenseman Jonathan Lupa. “Everyone knew it was a special night and the guys really stepped up for us. It was a great team effort and everyone really wore their heart in their sleeves.”
It was a hard fought, physical 20 minutes of hockey, as the Broncos and the Fighting Irish crowded the penalty box for a total of 24 minutes. The Irish had a golden chance to strike first on the scoreboard when they were rewarded with a five-on-three advantage, as the Broncos Kevin OConnor and Chris Frank were whistled for penalties.
“It was a hard fought game by both teams throughout the game, and it was nice to see the seniors and
the team get rewarded for their hard work,” said Broncos’ coach Jim Culhane. “We have been in so many close games this year that I kind of had that same gut feeling of knowing the game can go either way. Tonight, they hit a couple posts and they don’t go in and we got lucky with a couple of bounces.”
The Broncos were able to kill of all eight Irish power plays in the game and Notre Dame’s four extra man advantage tries in the first period that seemed to really shift the momentum to WMU.
“It is nice to see guys get rewarded for hard work,” Culhane said of his team’s fourth conference victory of the year.
For the Broncos, their best scoring chance came when freshman Max Campbell gained control of the puck inside the neutral zone off of an Irish turnover as he then fired a wrister at the Irish goalie, Jordan Pearce. Pearce deflected the shot up in to the air and quickly batted it away, not allowing any sort of whacky rebound attempt.
The Irish put up 42 shots on Broncos’ netminder Riley Gill, but were unable to light the red lamp for the first time since Oct. 27 when they were shut out against Ferris State.
“It has been like this for almost the whole second half; I can’t explain it,” said Irish coach Jeff Jackson when asked about his team’s struggle to score goals during the second half of this season.
After a scoreless first period that had both teams racking up the minutes in the penalty box, the Broncos were able to break into the scoring column first on winger Cam Watson’s ninth goal of the season. Watson collected the puck off Pearce’s pads near the right post from a shot by the Broncos’ Chris Clackson. Senior Jeff Pierce collected the second assist on the opening goal of the night.
Despite trailing the Irish through two periods in the shots department 27-16, the Brown and Gold were able to go into the second intermission with a two goal lead after Watson chipped the puck ahead into neutral ice territory during a ND power play and the Broncos’ Patrick Nagorsen gathered the puck in, put one move around an Irish defender and was in all alone against the ND goalie, slipping his shot underneath the legs of Pearce.
“Tonight was just a different atmosphere, everything was about the seniors, it was the seniors’ day, they led the team out there today and give them all the credit in the world they did a good job,” Gill said. Gill improved his record between the pipes to 6-15-2 on the season.
As Notre Dame pulled Pearce after a timeout with 30 seconds remaining, it was the block in the middle of the defense by the Broncos’ Chris Frank that helped wrap up the victory, leading to co-captain Jeff LoVecchio’s empty-net goal with 15 seconds remaining.
“It is not over, not over at all, I mean it is the last game this season here,” Pierce said. “Our whole season is going to start next week. Come Monday we are going to be watching video of who we are going to be playing and will be ready to go preparing for the playoffs.”