Western Michigan 3, Notre Dame 2 F/SO*
- With 8:37 remaining in the first period and his team down 1-0, WMU coach Andy Murray called his only timeout. Notre Dame, second-ranked and unbeaten in nine games, had already kicked the Broncos over the cliff with Austin Wuthric’s early goal. Now, things were about to get ugly. Like maniacal, giggling villains, the Irish were prying WMU’s cold, almost-dead fingers off the rocky ledge … until Murray pressed pause.
- We don’t know what he said during the timeout, but his face turned a shade of red only seen on a former NHL coach whose team is about to get boat raced in front of Toronto’s Brian Burke and Detroit’s Ken Holland, the NHL’s two most powerful general managers, and a raft full of their scouting peers.
- Whatever Murray said, though, it worked: Western escaped the first period with no further damage, then tied the game early in the second on defenseman Dennis Brown’s ripper from the point. 1-1. Game on.
- Brown also converted in the shootout on a Marty St. Louis-style skate/spray/stop/tap-in move that borders on illegal, at least in the NHL. Out of habit, the GMs still in attendance (Burke had already headed for the airport) phoned Toronto to complain … until they remembered it was Dennis Brown.
- This was a game of waves: Notre Dame controlled the first period with insane speed and a strength on the puck rarely seen so deep throughout a lineup. Western counter-punched in the second period and, although the shots were even (6-6), battled in all areas of the rink to hold off the bigger, faster Irish.
- Then the true momentum shift: WMU’s J.J. Crew stuffed home a rebound to make it 2-1 midway through the period. A Notre Dame defender shoved Crew as the puck went in and the senior forward flew through the air parallel to the ice in a scene reminiscent of the famous Bobby Orr goal/flying photo after his 1970 Stanley Cup-clinching tally. (We couldn’t tell if Crew got up and yelled “WHO DOES NUMBER TWO WORK FOR?” in the Irish players’ faces.)
- The third period was straight up wild. ND’s defense left the barn door banging in the breeze all period, which triggered multiple WMU odd-man rushes … that the Broncos failed to convert. They easily could have won the game in regulation had they a) shot the puck instead of over-passing it; and b) actually hit the net when they pulled the trigger.
- WMU’s freshman goaltender, Frank Slubowski, should undoubtedly be the team’s number-one. He made a series of stops in the third period that kept momentum on WMU’s side, including an insane pad-stacking robbery of a sure ND goal with about seven minutes left. The Irish eventually tied the game on that possession, but the save showed Slubowski clearly is not intimidated. He was aggressive and challenged shooters all night, yet played with an underlying, steadying calm that no doubt won this game. He was named first-star.
- Another seminal moment: WMU’s kill of a 4-on-3 power play in the third period, during which Slubowski looked like he had eight legs. With just a few seconds left on ND’s advantage, all three WMU penalty killers threw themselves into traffic in the crease to keep the puck out of the net. When they finally fired the puck down the ice to safety as penalty time expired, the crowd rose to its feet and let out a roar usually reserved for goals (or, if you’re the Lunatics, Puck Boy pizza pucks).
- Standing on the concourse an hour before game time was like standing on a sidewalk outside of a Toronto hotel during an NHL Board of Governors meeting. There was Burke, complete with his red face, tie undone and draped around his neck like a scarf, briefcase on his shoulder, “Movember” ‘stache that he said in a radio interview makes him look like Wilfred Brimley or Captain Kangaroo (he’s right); Flames GM Jay Feaster kept to himself over in section 8; then there were the Red Wings. As in, all of them: Holland, assistant general manager Jim Nill, Kris Draper, Chris Chelios and Director of Player Development Jiri Fischer.
- Everyone was there to scout WMU defenseman Danny DeKeyser (and a few Notre Dame players), although at this point it’s not so much about scouting as it is wooing. Word is DeKeyser wants to be a Wing, which probably explains why Holland brought everybody and his brother to Kalamazoo. It’s all about closing the sale. (Hey, where was Blash?)
- And if you’re DeKeyser, why NOT Detroit? The history. The success. It’s your hometown. Nick Lidstrom will be around to mentor you, perhaps while still cranking power play slappers from the point at 55 years-old. Yeah, Tampa is attractive and Steve Yzerman has personally visited, too, but – hey – Stevie Y’s going to end up in Detroit, anyway, once Holland moves to his golf cart, right?
- Holland and Nill stood along the concourse railing while, eight rows below them, Draper watched Chelios feed his addictions to sunflower seeds and electronic handheld devices. Seriously, Chelios had his face buried in his iPad the entire game, looking up only to spit shells into an empty water bottle. Draper watched parts of the game, but the former Red Wing greats looked more like two band kids whose parents dragged them to the game. You half expected Holland to march down there, grab them by their collars and growl, “Boys, I’m NOT going to tell you again…”
- Finally, get used to series splits in the the CCHA. “It’s so competitive top to bottom this year,” Nill said during the second intermission, shaking his head. “It’s really unbelievable.” The standings prove it: Ohio State (Ohio State?) is in first-place by virtue of a nine-game unbeaten streak, yet the Buckeyes have lost to Michigan State and Notre Dame this year. Michigan is Michigan — always tough — yet struggling Miami swept the Wolverines last weekend. Seven points separate Western and Ohio State.
- So, yeah, buckle up. This isn’t going to be as easy as everyone thought when the Broncos were ranked fourth.
* My friend Jamie Weir Baldwin at Michigan State reminded me that the CCHA technically counts last night’s game as a tie. Which is dumb.