The Home and Home Stretch

The Western Michigan (13-14-1, 11-9-0 CCHA) hockey team has eight games left and all four series are home and home series with three being with cluster opponents. Up first is CCHA first place team Ferris State (21-8-1, 16-5-1 CCHA) in a rare Saturday, Sunday series.

This past weekend saw the Broncos take two tough loses at the hands of Ohio State, both by a 3-2 score. For the weekend both Mike Mantua (3.65 GAA, .878 SV%)and Scott Foster (3.52 GAA, .875 SV%) saw a game from the net putting up solid performances along with a much-improved Bronco defense. Head coach Jim Culhane said, "we played well this weekend down in Ohio State, but unfortunately we didn't get anything to show for it."

On Friday night the Broncos manhandled the OSU offense giving up only 1 goal in the first 59 minutes of the game before allowing a last minute goal to tie the game up and an early overtime goal for the Buckeye winner. Foster made 26 saves in the game, while the Bronco offense only managed 17 shots on goal for the game.

Saturday was a slightly different game that the Broncos again let slip through their fingers in the closing minutes. The Broncos were able to tie the game up at 2-2 near the end of the third period on a Vince Bellissimo goal before Ohio State's Miguel Lafleche put away the game winner just 14 seconds later. Mike Mantua was solid in net stopping 44 shots to earn Perani Cup #3 star of the game.

On the weekend Dana Lattery tallied 2 goals, Jeremy Chayne added 2 assists and Pat Dwyer put home the first Bronco goal of the series. Bellissimo has continued his recent success netting yet another goal this weekend adding to his team points lead now at 25.

On the medical side of things Pat Dwyer went down with a knee injury during the second game of the series. Dwyer is expected to miss 2 or 3 weeks depending on how soon the mild knee strain heals and he can regain strength. "Right now what we've looked at is putting [Brent] Rumble at left wing on that line with Walton and Campbell. Brent has played well, and as a senior has played in several key situations for us." said Culhane about replacing Dwyer in the line-up.

Ferris State had an easy weekend post 5-1 and 7-1 wins over last place Lake Superior State in a pair of away games. Hobey Baker award candidate Chris Kunitz added to his league leading totals with 2 goals and 2 assists on the weekend while Jeff Legue put up the same numbers. Teammate Derek Nesbitt assisted on 4 goals on the weekend. Outstanding goaltender Mike Brown stopped all but 2 of the 43 shots he faced (.953 SV%) and made 30 of those saves in the second game.

FSU was able to maintain their lead in the CCHA standing, but they do not control their own destiny with second place Ohio State having 2 games in hand and only 3 point behind the Bulldogs. Put plainly, if Ohio State wins all of their remaining games the Buckeyes will win the CCHA regular season title no matter what any other team does the rest of the season. The Bulldogs have already surpassed their previous best season conference win total with 16 wins beating the old mark of 15 set in the 1990-'01 season when the Bulldogs finished third in the CCHA, the highest they've finished to date.

Ferris is riding a 3 game winning streak that has followed 3 straight series splits. The Bulldogs are also 9-3-1 in their last 13 games, which include wins over Michigan, Miami, and Northern Michigan. The Broncos have had their own recent success with a 6-3-0 record in 2003 that includes a 5-game winning streak, the teams first ever sweep of Alaska-Fairbanks, and a home win over Michigan to start the winning streak.

In the CCHA cluster system groups of four teams face each other 4 times each season. FSU is in the Broncos cluster and these two teams have met already twice this season. In the first meetings the home team won both games with Ferris winning 6-3 on November 15 in Big Rapids and the Broncos taking the next nights home game 4-1. The highlight for the weekend turned out to be Mantua's first career collegiate goal on the empty net to finish off the Bronco's Saturday night win.

Prior to last weekends OSU series the Broncos had scored at least 1 power play goal in each of their previous 3 games. The Broncos, however, had their power play shut down on 12 straight man advantages while only taking 8 shots. The stat is a little deceiving since many of the Broncos power plays were not for the full 2 minutes, but the lack of success is still there and will be addressed in practice. Culhane said, "give Ohio State some credit, they pressured us really well, goaltender Betz played well, we couldn't get one by him. It's something that we need to work on and get better at here."

Goaltending has been a very bright spot lately for the Broncos with Foster and Mantua both coming up with big wins for their team. In the last 7 games Foster has started 3 and played in 4, while Mantua has started 4 games. For the upcoming series it's anyone's guess as to who Culhane will play in each of the games, but fans can rest assured that both have played solid in their recent games. Culhane admitted of choosing who will start, "it's a good problem to have."

There will be several keys to winning games this weekend for the Broncos who have a 58-29-6 all-time record versus the Bulldogs including a 32-11-3 home record. First the power play needs to get back on track against the CCHA's #3 penalty kill, "we need to generate more offense on the power play," said Culhane. Second the Broncos need to be "driving the net, going to the net because [Mike] Brown is so good as a goalie for Ferris. We'll be looking at traffic in front of [Brown] and getting some rebound goals." The third thing is to have "more awareness of [Chris] Kunitz on the ice. We have to find a way to minimize his opportunities when he's on the ice."

Early in the season one big question mark for the Broncos was the defense. Ever since the Michigan series a few weeks ago the defense has been outstanding for the Broncos who have significantly reduced their goals against average. "We're playing with a lot of grit and a lot of determination, and we talked about trying to play desperate playoff hockey this time of year. The guys have done a good job of it, and we will need to continue to minimize scoring chances," said Culhane.

The games this weekend are Saturday February 15 at 7:05pm and Sunday February 16 at 4:05pm. Game one will be played in Big Rapids at Ewigleben Arena and game two will be at Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo. Both games can be heard on the Bronco Hockey Radio Network (100.9fm Allegan, 98.5fm Kalamazoo, 92.1fm Niles/ South Bend, 1570am Grand Rapids), and on Internet broadcast at www.wmubroncos.com. Tickets for the Saturday game are available at the Ferris St. ticket office at (231) 591-2888. Tickets for the Sunday match-up are available from the Bronco Ticket office at 1-888-4-WMU-TIX and at www.wmubroncos.com.

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