“That’s a tough way to lose a game.” — Vince Bellissimo, Western Michigan forward
KALAMAZOO — At one point in the second period of Saturday night’s game, the Michigan hockey team was up 5-2 and seemed to have the game under wraps. But three straight goals by Western Michigan tied the two teams at five and brought the thunder-stick-laden, sell-out crowd to a new level of excitement. Both the players and the fans were anticipating the second comeback win against Michigan in the last three years.
But with 53 seconds left in the game and the score still tied, Michigan junior Brandon Kaleniecki quieted the crowd. On a power play, sophomore T.J. Hensick controlled the puck and skated around the zone. When he got to the high slot, he dumped a pass into senior forward Milan Gajic at the bottom of the left circle. Gajic’s shot attempt was stuffed by Broncos goalie Daniel Bellissimo, but the rebound slid behind Bellissimo to a waiting Kaleniecki, who slapped the puck home. The goal gave Michigan a 6-5 win and a series sweep of Western Michigan, following Friday’s 6-4 win.
“I was actually just swinging my stick,” Kaleniecki said of the game-winning goal. “I kind of was on the outside of the net.”
But the “tough way to lose” that junior Vince Bellissimo, the older of the Bellissimo brothers, was referencing was not the goal scored with less than a minute to play. It was the call by the officials to set up the goal that angered the Broncos. With the game tied and only minutes left to play, the referee, Mark Wilkins, called an obstruction-tripping penalty on Western Michigan senior defenseman Mat Ponto. Western Michigan coach Jim Culhane had no comment about the officiating, saying only that he couldn’t have been prouder of his team.
Kaleniecki’s game-winner was the final third of a hat trick for the junior. He also scored two goals in a three-minute stretch in the second period –— during which Michigan tallied four goals and took a 5-2 lead.
Kaleniecki started the scoring burst with a slap shot from the top of the right circle halfway through the period, taking a pass from senior David Moss and one-timing it passed Bellissimo. Forty seconds later, Al Montoya defended a 3-on-1 with a great save. After the long rebound, defenseman Eric Werner dished the puck up the ice to Jeff Tambellini. Tambellini brought it into the zone and sent a pass across the goal to freshman Chad Kolarik, who tipped it and then hit the puck out of the air to give Michigan its first lead of the night, 3-2.
It then took Michigan over a minute and a half to make it 4-2 — on Kaleniecki’s second goal of the night — but just another 30 seconds after that to push it to 5-2. Tambellini tallied Michigan’s fifth goal of the night off a faceoff at 14:06 in the second. Kolarik won the faceoff in the Western Michigan zone. Senior Nick Martens gathered the puck and gave it to Tambellini at the high point. Tambellini’s powerful slap shot beat Bellissimo high, glove side.
“That stretch in the second period, the opportunities were something like 32-9 and we scored four goals,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “It was just one of those games. We took advantage of our chances. Al gave us the big saves when we needed them, and we came out on top.”
Western Michigan out-shot the Wolverines 35-27 for the night, but Michigan was kept in the game by its ability to score at a blistering pace and the clutch play of Montoya down the stretch. The goalie let five goals into the twine but might have had his best game of the season. He made 30 saves, including one sprawling save where Montoya jumped from one end of the net to the other with 1.5 seconds left to preserve the win for Michigan.
“I was playing the angle,” Montoya said. “I saw it go wide. I just gave a last effort and came away with it.”
Montoya almost made another spectacular save on the game-tying goal, 12 minutes into the final period. He was caught out of position and Broncos forward Brent Walton slipped a nice pass through the crease. Western Michigan senior Jim McNamara — a defenseman with just two career goals coming into the weekend — delayed the shot. Montoya dove across the net and was on his stomach when McNamara netted the game-tying goal. He reached up with his glove and narrowly missed the puck.
Like the night before, Michigan fell behind to start the game on Saturday at Lawson Ice Arena. Just over four minutes into the first period, Broncos freshman Mike Lesperance threw a shot at Montoya from the right circle. Montoya made the save and attempted to cover the puck before a handful of players — a couple from each team — barreled into him and pushed the puck over the goal line. Montoya tried arguing with the referee, claiming that he had the puck covered, but to no avail. Defenseman Ryan Mahrle was credited with the goal.
Minutes later — just 34 seconds into a power play — Hensick took a pass from defenseman Brandon Rogers at the blue line. The sophomore then proceeded to push his way all the way up the ice, weaving through Broncos defensemen. When he got to the middle of the right circle, he fired a shot. The deflection from a defender might have saved a goal, but it also sent the puck right to the stick of senior forward Milan Gajic. Gajic’s wrist shot found the back of an open net and tied the game at one.
On Friday night, Broncos center Paul Szczechura took the puck in the Michigan zone and beat Montoya to give the early lead to Western Michigan. The game stayed close all night, but 35 saves by Montoya and an offense that, coming into the game, was averaging 4.27 goals per game was too much for the Broncos. The eventual game-winner was scored by Tambellini, who brought the puck into the zone and beat Bellissimo on a laser-fast slap shot.
Vince Bellissimo said that Western Michigan’s forwards were working on a new system of offensive-zone coverage this week in preparation for Michigan. The nine-goal weekend was the most for the Broncos this season.
“Sometimes, there’s nothing that feels worse,” Bellissimo said. “We just worked as hard as we could out there.”