MINNEAPOLIS — Before a sparse Friday-afternoon crowd at Mariucci Arena, sixth-ranked Northeastern kicked off the Dodge Holiday Classic with a 3-1 win over Western Michigan.
Junior Chris Donovan scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal late in the second period and netminder Brad Thiessen was the glue for Northeastern, making 23 saves in a game with plenty of shots — 64 total between the two teams — but relatively few quality scoring chances.
“Both teams played pretty good defense,” said NU head coach Greg Cronin. “There were a lot of shots from the outside.”
WMU’s Riley Gill was just as good in defeat, stopping 37 Northeastern shots as the Huskies outshot the Broncos 40-24. The Northfield, Minn., native was playing in front of friends and family, and his coach’s main regret was not being able to get him the win.
“Riley’s one of the leaders on our team,” said WMU bench boss Jim Culhane, “and he’s won some big games for us.”
The opening minutes of the game were a feeling-out process as neither team generated much offense despite three quick power plays, two for Northeastern.
“It was a sloppy game, which was fairly predictable after a long layoff,” said Cronin.
In particular, Western Michigan (3-12-4) took over nine minutes to register its first shot on goal and Northeastern (12-3-2) outshot the Broncos 12-6 in the first period. Nevertheless, the first solid scoring chance of the game came off the stick of WMU’s Greg Squires, a point-blank attempt after a turnover in the high slot.
But Thiessen stopped that attempt, and seconds later Northeastern had the first goal of the contest. Right winger Steve Quailer did the honors with a back-door putaway of Alex Tuckerman’s cross-ice feed; the freshman’s fourth goal of the season came at 13:06. Steve Silva had the second assist, his team-leading 11th.
Early in the second period, Quailer nearly potted another goal, but Gill blocked his redirection of Tuckerman’s centering pass from the edge of the crease to hold the WMU deficit to one. Cam Watson then had a chance to tie for the Broncos on a shorthanded breakaway, but Thiessen saved his attempt, which came after a turnover at the far blue line.
With four minutes left in the middle frame, matching minors and a hold on Silva gave the Broncos a brief four-on-three and then its third five-on-four power play of the game, but Thiessen saved a short wrister by Ryan Watson to maintain the shutout.
Finally, with just seven seconds left in the period, the Huskies scored the backbreaker, doubling their lead heading into the second intermission.
Donovan gave Northeastern the 2-0 advantage by scoring off a scramble that involved the entire NU third line of Donovan, Ryan Ginand and Randy Guzior before the puck got by a sprawled Gill. After video review, the goal stood as Donovan’s fifth tally of the season.
“You never want to give something up late in the period,” said Culhane. “[But] I don’t think it was the difference in the game. … They just scored on their opportunities and we didn’t on ours.”
“I don’t think we’ve gotten a lot of blue-collar goals,” said Cronin. “It’s good to start [the second half] with that mentality.”
Western Michigan refused to fold, though, rallying with its first goal at 4:40 of the third period.
Watson netted his third goal of the season, a shot from the right circle that Thiessen appeared to stop until it somehow hopped over his stick, over his left shoulder and into the net to narrow the gap to 2-1.
“I think he’d [Thiessen] like to have the one back that went in,” quipped Cronin of Watson’s goal.
But the Broncos could get no closer for the rest of the period, and a penalty to Sean Weaver with just over three minutes left effectively ended WMU’s chances.
Wade MacLeod added the insurance goal for the Huskies at 18:58, lifting a shot over Gill’s glove side just after the expiration of the power play to account for the final score. Cronin, for one, was happy to take the win.
“Any time you play after a long layoff, it’s like ‘Flip a coin,’” he said.
On Saturday, Northeastern plays the winner of Friday night’s Minnesota-Brown matchup, while Western Michigan takes on the loser. Both game times are yet to be determined based on the Gophers-Bears outcome.