With the NCHC jam packed in the middle of the standings heading into the weekend, the Western Michigan Broncos knew they'd need to grab as many points as possible to attempt to grab a home playoff series in 3 weeks. Their opponent, the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, sat atop of that logjam and were looking to possibly sneak their way into the conversation for one of the top two seeds in the tournament.
On Friday, the Mavericks came out strong and netted the first two goals. First, Zahn Raubenheimer put home an easy chance, as Tanner Lane found him wide open in front of Lukas Hafner. The second goal came late in the 2nd period as Dominic Zombo drove home a juicy rebound on a power-play opportunity for his 14th goal of the season.
However, the Broncos responded just moments later, as Chase Balisy got a great stretch pass from Kenney Morrison and slid home a goal while also drawing a penalty to cut the Nebraka-Omaha lead in half. And while WMU was unable to score on the man advantage, they appeared to possibly be building some steam heading into the 3rd period.
But that's when the Mavericks buried the Broncos. First, Josh Archibald flew by a WMU defender early in the period and beat Hafner easily for his 24th goal of the season to seemingly deflate the Lawson Arena crowd. A few minutes later, Brock Montpetit found Austin Ortega in front of the net to make it 4-1 and completely demoralize the Broncos. Western Michigan would never recover and Jake Guentzel's empty netter finished off a 5-1 victory.
Western Michigan head coach Andy Murray was visibly upset over his team's performance after the game, telling reporters, "We just had too many players that we count on not playing at a high level tonight and it is disappointing. I am a pretty positive coach and I like to focus on the positive and that type of thing and make sure to recognize when people are doing things well. Tonight is a night for accountability and obviously I am the coach so it is my responsibility but a lot of losses this year I have taken responsibility. We got a group of guys in that room tonight that need to take some responsibility as well."
He added, ".We had too many minute-players for us that played poorly tonight. We had six players in my opinion that played a real solid game. We had a group of about 6 that were in between, but we had about 8 players that we count on that were below par for us tonight and that is unacceptable in a big game like this. Obviously we play tomorrow night and I expect that those players will be a lot better." (Note, quotes were transcribed from MLive's David Drew)
On Saturday, his team appeared to get the memo as they skated out strong in the first period. And though they didn't net a goal, the three power-play opportunities showed a clearly frustrated Maverick squad was unable to handle the intensity by the Broncos.
However, Nebraska-Omaha awoke in the second period with their own dominating performance. Archibald would again come through as he muscled his way in front of the net and put home his own rebound past Frank Slubowski to make it a 1-0 game. WMU would respond 37 seconds later as Justin Kovacs put home a short-handed goal to make it 1-1, but UNO had the clear lead in energy.
This would be shown mid-way through the period, as Colton Hargrove would be called for high-sticking, and then Jordan Oesterle would be shown the gate for a check from behind. The ensuing 5-on-3 opportunity would lead to an easy 2-on-1 chance as the Broncos were caught playing too high of a line, and Archibald netted his 3rd goal of the series, and 2nd on the night to make it 2-1.
Meanwhile, the Broncos would kill the rest of the major penalty, but shortly after, Tanner Lane blocked a shot at the blue-line, and drove down the boards uncontested for an easy breakaway goal to make it 3-1 late in the 2nd period. That score would hold as the Mavericks would continue to control play through the first few minutes of the third period.
But Western Michigan refused to drop another home game at Lawson, especially on Ice Duchenne Weekend.
The emotionally charged Nolan LaPorte was able to draw an elbowing call midway through the period to set up the Broncos' 14th power-play opportunity of the weekend. And after going scoreless on the prior 13, LaPorte came through with a hard shot from the right circle to beat Ryan Massa to pull WMU back within 1.
That sparked the entire Bronco team, as LaPorte would be involved on another play just over a minute later, as he patiently waited for Hargrove to set up in the slot, then hit his fellow sophomore with a well-placed pass. Hargrove calmly tied the game on his 8th goal of the season.
Then, Justin Kovacs would get a long pass from Shane Berschbach down the left boards, and appeared to get crushed by Maverick defender Jaycob Megna. However, Kovacs somehow worked his way out of the corner to hit senior captain Chase Balisy in front of the net for the go-ahead goal with 5:48 left. The Broncos would hold off a strong Nebraska-Omaha push late, and Berschbach's empty-netter, his 14th goal of the season, sealed a 5-3 victory.
The win was only the Broncos' 2nd win on the season when they trailed entering the 2nd intermission. Murray said he could sense the energy between the periods from his team and knew his team would get the job done.
"We were disappointed with our performance last night, but I liked our effort, our will, our determination [tonight]," he said after the game. "I take a look at our defense corps, and we lost Oesterle [in the 2nd period], and [freshmen] Taylor Fleming and [Thomas] Nitsche played a lot of quality minutes tonight for us. Dennis Brown, Kenney Morrison, Matt Stewart were also huge."
The win also came on the night when Western Michigan honored assistant coach Rob Facca's son Louie. Louie Facca was born with Duchene Muscular Dystrophy, or DMD. This weekend, the Broncos raised awareness and money to support finding a cure to DMD through their Ice Duchene Weekend. On Saturday, Louie was joined by former WMU defenseman and current Red Wing Danny DeKeyser for a ceremonial puck drop with his Grandpa Bob, who will be making a 2,500 mile trek from Quebec City to Winnipeg starting in May to raise funds for a cure.
To learn more about DMD, Grandpa Bob's journey, or to make a donation, visit either the Western Michigan page, or JessesJourney.com. Each team in the NCHC this weekend joined WMU in support of Ice Duchene by wearing a "No Bad Days" decal on their helmet, and support could be seen around the league from a variety of player and team twitter accounts.
After all of the other action around the league, Western Michigan moved up to 4th place in the NCHC standings following their split, with 31 points. They sit 2 points behind the Mavericks, who are a full two games back of leaders St. Cloud State and North Dakota. The Broncos also sit 2 points above Denver, who visit Lawson next weekend in the final regular season home series of the season. Minnesota-Duluth trail Western Michigan by 3 points, and sit in 6th place with two weeks to go in the season.