By Stefan Kubus -
DETROIT – It took the first shootout in Great Lakes Invitational history, but the Western Michigan Broncos punched their first ticket to the championship game of the 48th annual tournament since 1986 on Saturday afternoon.
A shootout winner from senior Dearborn Heights native Mike Leone sealed the deal for Western Michigan in a 2-1 victory over the Michigan State Spartans.
Broncos head coach Andy Murray – former NHL head coach before coming to WMU – said he knew the Spartans were much better than their record showed going into the game.
“Michigan State, we knew, was a much better team than their record,” Murray said. “Watching tape on them the last six games, they play extremely hard. They’ve got some real grit on their team, some quality young players and some veteran leadership so we knew it would be a bout.”
Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos said the day turned into a goaltending battle with how tight the game was.
“It’s very hard to get scoring chances and, when you do, the goalie steps up and makes big saves,” Anastos said. “That’s what you want your goaltending to do. I’m real happy with how Jake’s playing.”
The Broncos struck first, as junior forward Mike Cichy lit the lamp at the 10:21 mark of the first period, with assists going to junior Chase Balisy and sophomore defenseman Jordan Oesterle (Dearborn Heights). MSU defenseman Jake Chelios swatted the puck off Cichy’s stick as he was cutting to the net from the corner and the puck snuck past Hildebrand on the short side.
The second stanza made for a rather quiet affair on both sides with no tremendous chances coming on either side, but the Broncos continued to build pressure in the Spartans’ zone.
It wasn’t until there was only a mere 16.4 seconds remaining that Michigan State would tie things up, thanks to late heroics from sophomore forward and leading scorer Matt Berry, who tucked one past Slubowski all alone in front on a no-look pass from junior Lee Reimer.
Western Michigan had a huge opportunity in overtime, as Hildebrand took a retaliatory tripping penalty less than a minute into the extra session. However, the Spartans managed to kill off the 4-on-3 WMU power play and, as a result, the game would enter the first ever shootout in GLI history.
After four rounds, Leone found the back of the net with a sneaky shot over the right pad of Hildebrand to capture their spot in the championship game Sunday evening.
Hildebrand – who made 31 saves in the losing effort – said he was impressed with the Broncos’ overall 65-minute performance and said his club needs to come out strong in the consolation game.
“They’re a really good team, a very skilled team,” Hildebrand said. “We’ve just got to keep battling, keep competing… We’ve just got to compete as hard as we can.”
While it’s not the Red Wings playing in Joe Louis Arena, Murray said that the GLI is giving fans a little reminder that hockey truly never stops.
“Really, this is a special event and hopefully the National Hockey League gets their game back,” Murray said. “But right now, it’s college hockey in Detroit and it’s going to be an exciting game tomorrow.”