KALAMAZOO, Mich. – On a night in which so many ingredients were on the table for a critical NCHC road victory, the University of North Dakota instead left Lawson Ice Arena on Friday night lamenting a six-minute stretch of hockey and a 4-2 loss to Western Michigan.
Freshman sensation Tyson Jost returned to the UND lineup after a five-game injury absence. Goaltender Cam Johnson turned in a sparkling 37-save performance. Unheralded forward Cole Smith scored a big third-period goal.
But goals by WMU’s Neal Goff and Michael Rebry in the first six minutes of the second period tilted the game in favor of the host Broncos and gave them their first-ever home win over UND (1-8-0).
It was a costly loss for the Fighting Hawks, who dropped to 13th in the PairWise Rankings and missed an opportunity to pull even with third-place WMU in the NCHC standings.
A win would’ve also moved UND past idle St. Cloud State into the fourth and final home playoff spot for the conference playoffs.
“We had a little letdown in the second,” said Bowen.
The East Grand Forks, Minn., native was referring to the first six minutes of the second period.
UND opened the middle frame ahead 1-0 thanks to a short-handed goal by Rhett Gardner with 90 seconds left in the first period. However, WMU blitzed the Fighting Hawks in the opening six minutes of the second, dominating zone time and generating several quality scoring chances.
Goff finally broke the ice 71 seconds into the period after UND was unable to clear the zone. The defenseman sent a point shot through traffic that Johnson was able to get a piece of with his glove, but it had enough on it to trickle into the net.
Just under six minutes later, during another sequence of heavy pressure by the Broncos, Rebry found a loose puck in his skates on top of the crease and slid it through Johnson’s legs to put WMU on top 2-1.
“I thought we played a good 54, 53 minutes,” said UND captain Gage Ausmus. “They had two goals in that second period and that killed us. I thought that was the only time all game that they outplayed us. Obviously we’ve got to play a full 60 minutes.”
Despite the back-to-back Bronco goals, UND was able to right the ship for the rest of the period and finally found the tying goal 6:34 into the third period. Sophomore Brock Boeser entered the Broncos’ zone, spun and hit freshman Ludvig Hoff with a cross-ice pass. Hoff centered across the goalmouth to Smith for the tap-in, giving the big winger his third goal of the year.
Bowen had a tremendous opportunity to put UND on top just minutes later when, stationed beside the WMU net, the puck took an exaggerated bounce of the end boards right to Bowen. With a wide open net and goalie Ben Blacker scrambling back into position, Bowen tried to pull the puck in front of the net before Blacker could recover but was unable to do so.
“I got pretty excited there. I thought it was coming out a little bit quicker,” said Bowen. “I got there as fast as I can and tried to get a whack at it, but the goalie’s stick was right there and it was a tight angle.”
The puck deflected up into the air and out of the goalmouth area, and the game remained deadlocked.
Minutes later, WMU senior Sheldon Dries sped up the right side into the UND zone, pulled up the right faceoff dot and wired a wrister that beat Johnson up high with 6:52 remaining. It was a highlight reel effort for the reigning NCHC Offensive Player of the Week, who also won 11 faceoffs on the night and had two big shot blocks in the waning moments of the third period.
“We didn’t let our foot off the gas (after tying the game) and we kept going,” said Ausmus, “but Dries made an unbelievable play. Credit to him.”
Colt Conrad sealed the game with an empty-net goal with 90 seconds left in regulation.
Berry said his players need to resist the natural inclination to become frustrated.
“If you lose games and you feel like you got dominated, that’s worrisome. But what’s frustrating now is we’ve been playing hard and not finding it a way to get it closed out,” said Berry. “The guys have been doing the right things. This time of year, it’s playoff hockey and we’ve got to find a way and grind it out tomorrow.
“Second period, we got hemmed in our end for probably the first five or six minutes. They took control and that’s where they capitalized. We didn’t have very good puck management in that five or six minutes. I thought we came back and made a push. Third period, that’s the way we have to play all three periods. We dominated a lot of areas.”
Blacker and Johnson were the stars of the game, with the UND All-American stopping a season-high 37 shots and his freshman counterpart responding with 32 saves. Three of Blacker’s best stops came against UND sophomore winger Shane Gersich, the top goal-scorer in the NCHC. Gersich also hit a crossbar.
Ausmus said the objective is clear for Saturday’s series finale.
“We’ve got to go into tomorrow with a playoff mentality,” said Ausmus.” The national tournament’s on the line tomorrow night, really, for us. To come in here with a Saturday effort on the road, we’re going to need everyone going at their highest level.”
A win on Saturday would put UND back into the top four in the NCHC with four regular-season games remaining.
“We’ve just got to start winning games,” said Bowen. “That’s the bottom line.”
Saturday’s game is scheduled for a 7:05 p.m. Eastern puck drop.
Notes: Both teams were scoreless on the power play: UND was 0-2 and WMU was 0-3 … UND allowed a season-high 41 shots on goal, the first time an opponent has reached 40-plus since Dec. 2015 against Minnesota Duluth … The Fighting Hawks were without injured forwards Joel Janatuinen and Zach Yon … Jost had two shots on goal and went 7-6 on faceoffs in his first game since Jan. 20.