By Stefan Kubus -
DETROIT – Western Michigan will get an opportunity at redemption Saturday evening, as they will face Michigan Tech in the Great Lakes Invitational Championship for the second-straight year, hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s 4-0 loss.
The Broncos defeated the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines in their GLI semifinal Friday evening, a 3-2 overtime win, fueled by sophomore Josh Pitt’s highlight-reel game-winning goal in the extra frame.
“We talked today that this marked the beginning of the second half of our season,” head coach Andy Murray said. “We played 18 games before Christmas. We’re not satisfied with our results, felt that we let four games in particular slip away. I thought tonight was just reward for the work we put in the last month.”
A big factor in that reward was the Broncos’ penalty-killing, thwarting the Wolverines’ power play eight times throughout the tilt.
“Penalty killing was outstanding throughout the game,” Murray said. “We had to kill four penalties in the third period, which was somewhat strange. Our goaltender was a big part of that, made some key saves for us. A gratifying win against a very good team.”
In addition to the perfect PK unit, Western Michigan blocked 16 shots. Nobody was more grateful for that effort than sophomore goaltender and Compuware ‘AAA’ product Lukas Hafner.
“They definitely make me look a lot better when they’re out there blocking shots,” Hafner said. “Sixteen blocked shots, that makes my life a lot easier. We had a lot of first-time clears, which is really huge not to give them extra opportunities in front.”
Murray credited his team’s desire to work harder and longer for the victory, especially in the 16 total minutes of the game when down a man.
“It’s a courageous thing to do,” Murray said. “Michigan’s got some people that shoot the puck real hard, and a big part of your penalty kill is getting in shot lanes. Coach Ferschweiler does a good job of teaching that technique to our players. I think they felt that Lukas had already had enough shots and wanted to get in front of a few. Again, it’s playing harder, longer. It’s all about team and it’s all about sacrifice.”
Under the bright Comerica Park lights, Hafner said it was thrilling to play in the area he spent his younger days honing his game between the pipes for Compuware.
“It was a very exciting experience,” Hafner said. “Lots of family and friends that were able to come to the game to make it that special. Coach talked about before the game, for a lot of guys, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so it was a great feeling out there.”
JT Compher, originally expected to miss the GLI altogether, opened the scoring for Michigan around the midway point in the second period with a shorthanded breakaway tally.
Clawson native and WMU’s leading scorer Shane Berschbach all alone in front, took a feed from Jordan Oesterle (Dearborn Heights), made a backhand-forehand move and beautifully buried one past goaltender Zach Nagelvoort to tie things up at one aside. Shelby Township native Justin Kovacs drew the secondary assist on the goal.
Junior Will Kessel (Bloomfield Hills) potted the go-ahead goal with 4:12 to play in the second stanza, snapping a shot top-shelf on the short side past Nagelvoort. That’s the way things stood after 40 minutes, with the Broncos holding a slight 20-18 shot advantage.
Early in the third period, junior Travis Lynch (White Lake) intercepted a puck at center ice after Pitt blew a tire at center ice, skated in and wired a laser past Hafner to even things up for his Wolverines at two aside.
With 1:36 to play in overtime, Western Michigan had a glorious chance to end the game with a power play and did just that. Pitt gathered the puck in his own zone and skated end-to-end through three Wolverines defenders to put one past Nagelvoort for the 3-2 final and earn the berth in the GLI Championship game.
“It’s exactly the way that Coach Facca, our power-play coach, drew it up,” Murray joked about Pitt’s goal. “A great goal. He’s got a chance to be on SportsCenter for two reasons: he had a hit in the second period where he knocked the guy into our bench and then he scored a very gratifying goal.”
Western Michigan and Michigan Tech will battle for the 49th GLI Championship at 7 p.m. It’s the first time in GLI history that the consolation and championship games will feature the same match-ups in back-to-back years.
“We’re excited about our opportunity to play Michigan Tech tomorrow,” Murray said. “They played a tremendous game today against Michigan State, and they present some major problems as a team; they work extremely hard.”