No. 7 Western Michigan came into Friday’s series opener against the Michigan hockey team riding a five-game winning streak spanning back to Nov. 17.
The Wolverines, coming off their first bye week of the season, were looking to get back on track against one of the best and hottest teams in the CCHA. They didn’t quite have enough, though. The Bronco’s used two first-period goals to cruise to a 4-1 victory at Yost Ice Arena.
“We know everyone is hot right now compared to us,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We just need to get going. This isn’t about Western, this about Michigan. We need to get going and we need to take a step forward.”
The first period was littered with penalties and both teams earned four trips to the box — freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba with two of them. Seven minutes into the initial frame, Michigan (3-6-2 CCHA, 5-8-2 overall) was able to stymie a Bronco power play, but 10 seconds later, with both teams at full strength, Western Michigan (7-2-1, 10-3-1) scored a deflection goal that appeared to be caused by freshman goalie Steve Racine’s blocked vision.
With 4:26 remaining in the period, Michigan had the perfect opportunity to tie up the game while on a five-on-three power play. Instead of capitalizing, the Wolverines didn’t tally a single shot with the advantage. The inability of the power play to score has been a continual problem this season — prior to Friday night’s game, Michigan was scoreless on its last 22 power plays.
The Broncos notched another goal with 34 seconds remaining in the first period, this time while on a power play of their own, making the score 2-0. Western Michigan came into the contest with the nation’s eighth-best power play, and its ability to maintain the puck deep in the Wolverines’ zone showcased this talent.
Michigan seemed to rally during the first intermission, and the offense was much more involved to start the second period. But after an untimely line shift that resulted in a three-on-one rush for Western Michigan, the Broncos tallied their third goal of the game making the score 3-0 and gaining all the momentum. Berenson said that this was a result of a bad line change and Michigan’s inability to get the puck deep in the Western Michigan zone. The three-goal deficit took away the sixth-man advantage that the rambunctious Yost crowd usually gives the Wolverines.
Finally, with little more than six minutes remaining in the second period, sophomore forward Phil Di Giuseppe got a fortunate bounce right in front of the Western Michigan goal and scored on a wide open right side of the net. This concluded the scoring for both teams and gave Michigan a little bit of hope going into the locker rooms.
The Wolverines, who went an abysmal 2-6-1 in November, had used the bye week to try to tighten up a defense that has allowed 3.53 goals per game — tied for the 54th in the country. Michigan coach Red Berenson, though, has stressed that a lot of the time, a good offense will create a better defense.
“Special teams were a factor again,” Berenson said. “We moved the puck pretty well on the power play at times and couldn’t score. We finally got good chances in the third but we’re down by two and it’s tough to score. Our overall team effort and our execution has to be better.”
That was missing on Friday. After the second period, Michigan had tallied just 11 shots compared to Western Michigan’s 25, and the offense just couldn’t get anything going.
Racine, who has been the most reliable of the inexperienced Wolverine goalies this season, looked like he was struggling to see the puck for much of the night, and there were constant rebound opportunities for Western Michigan.
With an increased sense of urgency, Michigan was able to gain offensive momentum in the third period. But Racine’s counterpart—goalie Frank Slubowski — made impressive save after impressive save to keep the Wolverines from finding the back of the net. Slubowski’s 1.40 goals allowed has been the Broncos’ backbone during their current winning streak.
“We made it easy on the goalie tonight, by not shooting enough on him,” said senior forward Kevin Lynch. “We need to get people in front to take away his eyes. Anything he can’t see he’s going to have trouble stopping. We just got to get guys in front of the net and pucks in front of the net.”
Western Michigan added an empty-net goal from Dane Walters to end the game 4-1. The two teams will meet Saturday night at Yost for the series finale.