March 27, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Denver Bucks Broncos in 2OT

Dream Season Ends in Heartbreak for Western Michigan

CHN Staff Report

Denver sophomore defenseman Matt Donovan reacts to scoring the game-tying goal. (photo: Brad Olson)

Denver sophomore defenseman Matt Donovan reacts to scoring the game-tying goal. (photo: Brad Olson)

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The dream season is over. The sting can be felt. But the palpable sense around Kalamazoo is that this is only the beginning.

After a dismal season a year ago, Western Michigan let coach Jim Culhane go, and turned to former Miami assistant Jeff Blashill. The turnaround was stunning, leading to the Broncos' first NCAA bid in 15 years.

Western Michigan ultimately suffered the same fate as the other upstart programs that made the NCAAs this year — all First Round losers. Union, which had never made the tournament, lost to Duluth on Friday. RPI, which hadn't made it since 1995, lost to North Dakota on Saturday. Merrimack, which last made it as an independent in 1988, was knocked out in overtime by Notre Dame.

And then there was the Broncos, still playing into double overtime against the second-best team in the vaunted WCHA, before losing to Denver, 3-2, in the Midwest Regional on Saturday.

Said Blashill, "At the beginning of the year, we asked this group, ‘Is this going to be a team that moves this program forward and moves it into the national spotlight? Will this be that team?’ That was a question to our guys and we told them what it would take to get there. It would take an extra-ordinary amount of work and sacrifice. Led by Ian Slater, Max Campbell and Ryan Watson, this group came and made sacrifices and played unlike any team that I’ve been around. We’re proud of what they’ve done for Bronco hockey and there will be a day when we celebrate at the end of this tournament and when we do, every guy in that locker room will have had a big impact on that. I can’t thank them enough. These guys are as good of leaders of anyone that I’ve been around. It’s a sad, frustrating day for our season to be over because this was a special group."

The Broncos had a 2-0 third-period lead in this game, and it looks almost certain that Denver would lose its fourth consecutive First Round game. But suddenly, the Pioneers found a spark.

"“Certainly this team has always shown throughout the year that our third period is by far our best period of games,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said.

For Western Michigan, it was similar to its playoff series win over Ferris State that catapulted it to CCHA Final Four and ultimately to the NCAAs. The Broncos led 4-1 in the decisive Game 3, blew the lead, then won in overtime.

"We certainly knew, against a great team like Denver that a two-goal lead might not be safe and ultimately, it proved not to be," Blashill said. "I think our guys have done a great job of being level-headed throughout the season and we’ve handle the ups and downs of emotions. We thought about calling a timeout, but the feeling on the bench is that we were fine."

The only difference, of course, was that this time, Western couldn't get the winning goal.

Still, it was hard to say — well into double overtime — that losing a late two-goal lead had anything to do with it.

"I thought our guys continued to play," Blashill said. "(Denver) had a chance as time expired, but I thought our guys continued to play. As the game went along, we certainly had our chances. We understand that once you get into overtime, it’s a flip of a coin."

Both teams had chances into the second overtime, though you could tell the legs were starting to lag. It was the second straight double overtime game for Denver, which lost the WCHA championship game last weekend to North Dakota in similar circumstances.

But the Pioneers finally capitalized on a break, when WMU goalie lost sight of the puck after a shot was deflected towards the corner to his right. With Kuhn out of the net, Denver's Jason Zucker wristed a short-angle shot into the far corner, behind Kuhn, to get the winner.

“I was just going down the ice, Drew Shore drove the net and I think that pulled the two (defensemen) in with him," Zucker said. "Luke Salazar made a great play there and I was just able to put the puck on net. It happened to go in for me.

“We’ve been in this position many times. We had a lot of confidence still and we kept things upbeat and everything. The talk was ‘If you get one goal, they’re all going to start coming.’ It’s just the way our team has been this year and we just have that never give up attitude.”

Even in a loss, Western Michigan showed the same spirit, one that bodes well for the future.

"I can’t even put into words of how proud I am of them and the effort they put forth," Blashill said. "Not only all season, but in big moments like at (Joe Louis Arena) when we beat Michigan and against Miami when we were right in the game. This group is an amazing group. They have a resiliency about them."

Said WMU junior Ian Slater, "It’s been such a tough road to get here and it’s so hard to get into the tournament. You have to make so many sacrifices and put in so many man hours and it takes a complete team to make all those sacrifices. It’s going to hurt the entire summer honestly, but we’ve worked hard and we know what kind of sacrifices it takes to get to this level. I feel honored and humbled to be a part of this program.

"It was a 91-minute game. It was a battle and we hold our heads high. We wanted so much more, but we’ll move forward through the summer."

David Drew contributed to this report.

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