Nobody thought Western Michigan had the resolve to recover from a two-goal deficit with 17 minutes remaining.
Brandon Rogers’ power-play tally at 3:02 of the third period to put Michigan up 3-1 seemed to be the insurance marker. The Wolverines (15-6-1, 9-4-1 CCHA) offense kept the puck away from the Broncos all night, outshooting WMU 22-8 after two periods, while the Broncos found themselves staring down the barrel of an 0-10-0 record when trailing after two periods against a Michigan team that was 13-2-0 when leading after two.
After being humiliated, 10-3, in Ann Arbor, Friday night, it would have been safe to believe this same Bronco squad was finished.
But one shot changed everything.
Chants of “Osgood!” reigned down from the standing-room-only crowd of 4,575 fans at Lawson Ice Arena after Michigan freshman goaltender Al Montoya let in a shot from the blue line by WMU freshman forward Vince Bellissimo to blow the game open at 8:35 of the third period.
Montoya was handcuffed by a fluttering shot from Bellissimo that suddenly thrust the Broncos back into the contest, cutting the Michigan lead to 3-2.
“It was a pretty fortunate play,” said Bellissimo. “I just crossed the red line and wasn’t doing a good job through the neutral zone with the puck, I couldn’t generate any confidence with my hands, so I figured I’d just shoot it at the net.
“We had Jeremy Cheyne driving the net at the blue line, and I think it fooled the goalie because I don’t think he saw the puck until the end. It was kind of knuckling as well, but I just saw it go in to make it a 3-2 game.”
“That was the bounce we needed,” said sophomore goaltender Mike Mantua. “We usually don’t get many bounces, and when you get something like that, you know it’s going to go your way after that.”
Culhane appreciates what makes Lawson one of the league’s toughest venues.
“When you have those 1,600 kids ranting and raving, it gives us a shot of adrenaline,” Culhane said. “To tell you the truth, that’s the extra player on our team with the enthusiasm.”
The Broncos proceeded to put 17 shots on Montoya in the third period, while putting two more unanswered goals on the board to shock the No. 8 Wolverines in a 4-3 victory to salvage a split for the weekend.
The loss snapped a four-game winning streak for Michigan, while the victory raised the Bronco record against ranked opponents over the last eight years to 20-15-9.
WMU head coach Jim Culhane gave credit to his kids for not breaking when facing a two-goal deficit late.
“They really stuck together in the locker room during that second and third period and said, ‘We have 20 minutes; this is the last time we play Michigan in the regular season, so let’s work hard.’ And they did that.”
Following Friday’s contest, the Broncos desperately needed someone to step up offensively and have a big game. Bellissimo was more than up to the task when the Toronto, Ont., native skated past the Michigan defense before hitting the corner of the net with a wrister at the top of the crease at 12:12 of the third to even the score at 3-3. Bellissimo earned No. 1 Star of the Game honors with two third-period goals.
“We needed Vince, or whoever it would be, to have a big game for us against an outstanding opponent such as Michigan,” said Culhane. “We needed guys to raise their game and Vince was just one of a number of guys who elevated their game, specifically in the third period.”
Junior forward Dana Lattery gave the Broncos the lead for good at 16:07 of the third period in typical Lattery fashion. The captain jumped on a loose puck in traffic and backhanded a shot into the net to send the crowd into a frenzy with his 10th goal of the season, as the Broncos took a stunning 4-3 lead. Lattery finished the contest with a goal and an assist.
Mantua rebounded after allowing four goals on seven shots in Friday’s contest by stopping 26 shots to raise his record to 6-8-0 on the season. Montoya finished with 21 saves in defeat.
Junior forward Jeff Campbell continued his hot weekend by putting the Broncos up 1-0 at 13:53 of the first period. Campbell took a feed from freshman forward Brent Walton and one-timed a blast past Montoya from the top of the left faceoff circle to give the Hensall, Ont., native three goals on the weekend.
“That was big for us, confidence-wise,” said Culhane. “For us to score first after having a pretty shaky start in Ann Arbor last night … to put the crowd into it was pretty critical.”
The Wolverines slowly began to take over the game after the first intermission. A Bronco turnover allowed John Shouneyia to find sophomore forward Mike Woodford alone in the slot for a one-timer high over Mantua at 1:28 of the second period to even the game at 1-1.
Michigan took the lead at 11:25 of the second period on an outstanding effort by forward Andrew Ebbett. The freshman was focused enough while falling to the ice to unload a wrister that found a hole between Mantua’s legs to give the Wolverines a 2-1 lead.
Michigan seemed to cash its four-point check on the weekend with Rogers’ tally early in the third period. Shouneyia again was able find an open Wolverine in the slot, and Rogers finished the play by putting a shot over the shoulder of Mantua to put Michigan up temporarily at 3-1.
But WMU responded with three unanswered goals of its own to keep it even at .500 in the CCHA.
“This gives us something to build upon, and keep us .500 in the league in our quest [for] home-ice advantage in the playoffs,” said Culhane. “We’ll have a difficult test, again, with another nationally-ranked opponent as Miami comes here next weekend.”
WMU hosts Miami next weekend for a two-game set in Kalamazoo, while Michigan is off until Jan. 23 when it takes on Lake Superior State.