DETROIT — Western Michigan showed Thursday night in the Great Lakes Invitational semifinals why it’s called a power play.
Powered by a quartet of man-advantage goals, the No. 16 Broncos skated past Michigan State 4-1, punching their ticket to play Michigan Tech in the event’s final championship game to be held in historic Joe Louis Arena.
“I think our entries were good,” coach Andy Murray said of the power-play unit, which entered converting at a 21.8 percent clip and went 4-for-7 on Thursday. “I thought when we weren’t entering, our faceoffs were good so we ended up with possession right away. We didn’t have to chase a lot of pucks. And we had some good net traffic and some guys who can shoot the puck.”
The story was opposite on the other side for Michigan State and coach Tom Anastos. The Spartans entered with the nation’s worst penalty kill at just 71.6 percent and saw that number plummet even lower.
“Special teams has been a real issue for us, of late in particular, and it cost us the game tonight,” Anastos said. “They took advantage of special teams and we did not, and that was the difference in the game.”
Anastos was right, as shots were tight — 31-30 in favor of the Broncos (9-5-3) — and Michigan State (4-10-1) had its chances. That was especially true early on, as both Sam Saliba and Dylan Pavelek hit the post behind WMU goalie Ben Blacker in the first period.
Blacker — who missed more than a month in the first half of the season with mono — was also solid when need be, including on a Taro Hirose breakaway he turned aside in the third period.
“We have some things we have to be a lot better at than we were tonight in terms of our 5-on-5 structure,” Murray said. “We’ll endeavor to do that tomorrow. Our special teams were really effective and our goaltender played really well tonight.”
Jade McMullen started the scoring for Western Michigan just seven seconds into a power play and 11:31 into the game, tucking a rebound past MSU goalie Ed Minney from in front. Just 15 seconds into the Broncos’ third man advantage of the opening period, Sheldon Dries made it 2-0, scoring from a sharp angle at 17:34 after Minney lost his stick in a scramble.
Griffen Molino made it 3-0 8:52 into the second and 15 seconds into another Western Michigan power play. Cam Lee’s drop pass hit Molino in stride for him to roof a picture-perfect backhand over Minney.
The Spartans earned a five-minute power play at 10:07 of the second when Corey Schueneman hit JT Stenglein into the boards from behind. MSU’s Mason Appleton scored through a screen at 12:33, but the Spartans couldn’t convert the rest of the way.
“We really needed to get two given where we were at that point of the game,” Anastos said.
A minute after the major expired, Rhett Holland took a tripping penalty for MSU, and Western’s Matheson Iacapelli scored from the center point at 16:50 to set the final score.
Western Michigan last won the GLI in 2013 and has two titles in its four all-time appearances.
Michigan Tech 2, Michigan 0
Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson didn’t love his team’s game in the GLI opener, but he was at least appreciative of the fact his team will be playing in Friday’s championship nightcap.
“We just had to grind a way into the championship game,” Pearson said after the Huskies’ 2-0 win over Michigan. “You can’t win the championship game unless you’re in it, so we had to get in that game any way we could.”
Pearson called it “holiday hockey” as his team was rusty in his view in its first action since Dec. 10, but the score sheet told a better story for the Huskies, who improved to 13-7-3 by winning their 11th of 14. Michigan Tech outshot the Wolverines 38-23 — including a dominating 19-3 in the second period — and watched freshman goaltender Angus Redmond earn his second career shutout.
Defensemen Dane Birks and Cliff Watson scored, each potting their first of the year. For Birks, a sophomore, it was the first of his 53-game college career, though he looked like a seasoned goal scorer as he expertly tipped Mark Auk’s shot from the left point past Michigan goalie Hayden Lavigne just 5:46 into the game.
“I was trying to go to the front and get a stick on it, and fortunately it went in,” Birks said. “I think that was just a lucky one, but I’ll take it.”
Watson made it 2-0 at the 8:41 mark of the second. Pinching down from the left point, he found the rebound of Jake Lucchini’s shot pinging off the boards and sent a one-timer through Lavigne’s legs before the Michigan goalie could locate the puck.
From there, the Huskies weathered a strong start to the third by the Wolverines, whose best chances came from Cooper Marody — in his first game back after being ineligible in the first half of the season — and Alex Kile. The Huskies also denied five Michigan power plays, including a 5-on-3 of 1:16 in the first period.
“Michigan has a really good power play, and they have some skilled guys,” Pearson said. “They always have. We played them earlier in the year in Ann Arbor and basically their power play carried them to a win and a tie. I thought our penalty kill did a great job. Your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer and he was outstanding.”
Befitting two teams that played twice earlier this season, tempers flared occasionally, especially with 4:12 left when a hit by Michigan’s Will Lockwood left Auk dazed behind his own net. Lockwood was given a charging major and game misconduct.
Last year’s tournament runner-up, the Huskies will try to win their 11th GLI and first since 2012, while Michigan fell to 7-9-1.
“We need to play a lot better,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “We weren’t good enough. We’ll learn from it and come back tomorrow. Our team worked hard over the break. I thought we would be better than we were.”