By Stefan Kubus -
DETROIT – In a grudge match of last year’s Great Lakes Invitational, the Western Michigan Broncos got their revenge Saturday night at Comerica Park under the bright ballpark lights.
With a 1-0 victory over Michigan Tech – thanks to a stellar shutout performance from tournament MVP Lukas Hafner and an overtime winner from Justin Kovacs (Shelby Township) – the Broncos captured their first GLI title since 1986. And after winning that 1986 title, it took 26 years for the Broncos to get invited back.
“We’re concerned because the last time Western Michigan won the tournament in 1986, they didn’t get invited back for 30 years, so we’re hoping that changes, but it’s a tremendous tournament to play in,” head coach Andy Murray said after the game with a wry smile. “To play in this venue here at Comerica Park is a lifetime of memories for our players, no question about it, all the pictures they were taking in practice the first day. All of our equipment guys had about eight cameras around their neck, so it’s been a great experience. For our seniors and our juniors, they had the good fortune to win the CCHA Championship in Detroit and now to win the GLI is special.”
It was about as even a game as it gets, with three failed power-play opportunities aside and the shots reading 33-31 in favor of the Huskies, but somebody had to crack eventually. It took a bizarre goal by Kovacs, who played high school hockey at Grosse Pointe North, that barely snuck in to end it all.
“We totally talked about it in the intermission, getting point shots off that back wall because the boards are bouncy out there,” Kovacs said. “Kenney (Morrison) took one off the back wall and I just saw it popped out. I just went to the net, chipped it in and it trickled in, thank God.”
The goal capped off back-to-back overtime wins for Western Michigan, the first time the program achieved that feat since Dec. 12, 1987 and Jan. 2, 1988.
Hafner, a Compuware AAA alum, did everything possible to keep his team in the game, turning away all 33 shots he faced en route to the win.
“I felt great with the guys in front of me; they were playing really well tonight,” Hafner said. “I was seeing a lot of pucks tonight. They were blocking tons of shots, first-time clears getting the puck out of the zone. The guys played great in front of me.
The last goaltender to record a shutout in the GLI Championship was actually his counterpart, Pheonix Copley, who posted back-to-back perfect outings en route to the Huskies’ title last year. But in this rematch, Hafner outdueled his masked adversary, matching him save-for-save.
“Going into a game like that, Pheonix played a great game tonight,” Hafner said of battling Copley. “He’s a great goaltender, and it’s a great feeling. Great to come out on top for sure.”
The first period didn’t bring any scoring, but both teams produced some solid flow to the game with an up-tempo pace, which set the stage for the rest of the tilt.
In the second stanza, the hitting picked up quickly on both sides to build off that first-period momentum. Sophomore Broncos forward Colton Hargrove had the best chance of the period, catching a breakaway with just under four minutes left in the second stanza, but Copley got a good piece of his shot with the blocker to turn it away.
Brighton native Blake Pietila had a breakaway opportunity halfway through the third period, but couldn’t catch up to the puck quick enough to give himself a lot of options for a shot. Hafner turned the backhand attempt aside to keep things scoreless.
On the other end, Copley was equally as strong, making 31 saves through 60 minutes.
The Huskies were handed a power-play opportunity with 2:38 to play in the third period, as the Broncos took a too-many men penalty that proved to be fruitless for Michigan Tech.
In overtime, just 2:01 into the extra frame, a loose puck that bounced off the end-boards behind the Huskies’ goal popped out in front to a crashing Kovacs. He just got enough of it to bang it home past Copley for the win.
“I’m pleased with the result,” Murray said. “We had to to do it the hard way, had to kill off a penalty in the last two-and-a-half minutes there, but found a way to hang in and get it done. We had excellent goaltending all weekend and had a group of players that competed on every puck.”
Following the game, the Western Michigan bench boss said that he was obviously glad his team came out on top, but that it was tough to see one team go home empty-handed after such hard-fought affair on both sides. Heading into the second half, it’s a win that the Broncos can certainly build momentum from.
“Certainly, a gratifying win for our team,” Murray said. “I feel for Michigan Tech. They battled hard all weekend and very difficult to lose in overtime like that, so I certainly feel for them. I liked our compete level, I’ve liked how our team has played hockey the last three series that we’ve had. Up to this weekend, we only had one win in our last four games, but I’ve liked how we’ve played. If we continue to compete like this and battle, play heavy hockey, we have an opportunity to be successful.
The GLI All-Tournament Team
F – Josh Pitt (WMU)
F – Justin Kovacs (WMU; Shelby Township)
F – Alex Petan (MTU)
D – Jordan Oesterle (WMU; Dearborn Heights)
D – Riley Sweeney (MTU)
G – Lukas Hafner (WMU); MVP
Notes: Freshman defenseman Mike McKee (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) played in his 11th game of the season for the Broncos, but first at forward, after being scratched in Friday night’s game against Michigan State. McKee is a Detroit Red Wings fifth-round draft pick (140th overall). In his 10 prior games, he recorded zero points, but racked up 46 penalty minutes… The last time Michigan Tech won back-to-back GLI titles was in 1979-80. Both of those championship games went into overtime. Head coach Mel Pearson was a player on that 1979 team and scored the game-winning goal in triple overtime… In his four career GLI outings dating back to last season, Pheonix Copley has posted a 3-1 record for MTU, has allowed only three goals and has recorded two shutouts.