On a night when Western Michigan honored its first class of players to play exclusively in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), it was the young goaltenders who were on display as Minnesota-Duluth showed its power in a 6-3 victory.
Seven seniors, including three-year captain Sheldon Dries, were honored before the game. The group ran the gambit from the large enforcer Mike McKee, to solid contributors in Aaron Hadley and Michael Rebry, to long-time defensemen Chris Dienes and Taylor Fleming. The group, which came in before the 2013-14 season, was the first recruiting class in the post-CCHA era. They helped the Broncos advance to the first Frozen Faceoff of the conference, but had seen little success since. However, they helped lead a revival of the program, as the Broncos have contended in the national spotlight for a good portion of the season.
On this night though, season-long powerhouse Minnesota-Duluth came away with the victory behind superb goaltending from freshman Hunter Miska. A night after he was pulled in a blow-out loss, the netminder stopped 28 shots in a winning effort.
The game started with the Broncos controlling the play. However, a pair of penalties towards the end of the period put the Bulldogs on the power-play. First, Colt Conrad’s interference call allowed Duluth to pepper Bronco netminder Ben Blacker with shots. Eventually, Jared Thomas was able to lift a puck over Blacker’s sprawled out body to make it 1-0. Less than 3 minutes later, Dries was called for a questionable cross-checking call, and Adam Johnson almost immediately scored to make it 2-0 just before the end of the period.
However, before the intermission, Dan Molenaar’s holding call to prevent a great scoring chance nullified another power-play opportunity. It also gave the Broncos their own power-play chance early in the 2nd period after Luke Bafia’s elbowing penalty expired. Sophomore sniper Matheson Iacopelli was able to fire from the right circle to beat Miska and make it a 2-1 game.
Later in the period, Lawton Courtnall would be called for interference. The Bronco penalty kill went to work, and successfully defended against the insurance goal. As the penalty expired, Courtnall raced out of the box to help on a 2-on-1 chance. While the scoring threat was well defended, the Broncos crowded the net, and Courtnall put away an open rebound to tie the game near the mid-game mark.
From there, the Broncos looked to pounce, but Miska held firm. Shot after shot was turned away, and it appeared the two teams would be deadlocked headed to the third. But a late scoring threat by the Bulldogs saw the puck end up behind Blacker and just outside the post. After a short scrum to clear the puck, Johnson struck again to make it 3-2 heading into the final period.
In the 3rd, the Bulldogs quickly scored an insurance goal by Avery Peterson. 5 minutes later, Joey Anderson added a snipe past Blacker to make it 5-2. The goal ended the freshman goaltender’s night, as he stopped only 19 shots while allowing 5 goals. Senior Collin Olson - a transfer from former CCHA rival Ohio State - took over, and stopped all five shots he saw, but the Broncos could not close the gap.
They would get a great shot by Molino to beat Miska to make it 5-3, but an empty-netter by Alex Iafallo would put the Broncos away for good.
Western Michigan (20-9-5, 13-9-2-1) will host their first NCHC Playoff series after travelling to opponents the past three seasons. They last hosted post-season action when they faced a red-hot, 7-seeded Michigan team that would finish runner-up in the final CCHA Tournament. That was in 2013.
For Minnesota-Duluth (21-6-7, 15-5-4-3), they will be the two-seed and host the Miami RedHawks, who will have limped into post-season play.