Only a few inches separated Western Michigan and Notre Dame at Lawson Ice Arena Friday night, and Broncos captain Chase Balisy found them.
Balisy snuck a wrist shot betwee the stick of Steven Summerhays and the far post in the final round of a shootout to help Western Michigan(18-8-7, 14-6-5-3 in CCHA play) hang on to its slim margin over the Irish in the CCHA standings. Balisy’s goal gave his team two points. Notre Dame was awarded one for earning a tie at the end of regulation and remains nipping at the Broncos heels heading into a rematch Saturday night.
“Since we’re matched up so evenly it’s all about taking advantages of those little mistakes,” Irish center David Gerths said. “Mistakes that you can’t really see from the stands, but they’re there. They’re small, tiny things, but when we’re both playing playoff hockey that’s probably what’s going to win tomorrow night’s game.”
Gerths scored the first goal of the night for No. 11 Notre Dame(19-12-2, 15-8-2-1 CCHA) way back in the first period. He picked the top left corner of the net on an odd man rush to tie the game for the first of many times. Freshman Sam Herr, making a rare appearance on the third line, fed Gerths with a pass in the high slot to collect his first career point.
Western Michigan surged ahead of the Irish three times in regulation, and Notre Dame answered each one. Sophomore Justin Kovacs started the game with a rebound goal. After Gerths scores, Center Will Kessel answered with his first score of the year 21 seconds later.
Notre Dame peppered Broncos goalie Frank Slubowski (25 saves) throughout the second period. The sophomore goalie stood up to them all before the Irish finally got a bit of a lucky bounce to tie the game on a shorthanded goal. Junior Bryan Rust fired a shot that rolled up and over Slubowski’s stick into the back of the net. Rust’s 11th goal of the year made the score 2-2 with less than two minutes to play in the second period.
“We hope that we don’t have to play from behind all night, but I give our guys credit because we came back each time,” head coach Jeff Jackson said.
The two teams traded goals again in the third period. Freshman Nolan Laporte scored four minutes into the final period. Broncos defenseman Garrett Haar started the play with a shot from the point. The puck trickled from Trevor Elias’s stick over to Laporte, who stared down a big chunk of open net and shot before Irish goalie Steven Summerhays could get back in position. Summerhays finished with 22 saves.
Sophomore Austin Wuthrich took two big shots from the slot midway through the period, and the second one found a hole in the Western Michigan defense. Wuthrich’s first shot rang off the elbow of the crossbar and the post. Freshman Steven Fogarty gathered the rebound and fed it back to Wuthrich for another attempt that tied the game 3-3.
The Irish had a handful of opportunities to leave Lawson Arena with a big road victory late in regulation, but couldn’t get their finger on the trigger in front of the net. Herr failed to corral a pass on the doorstep with a minute left. He also clanked a long shot off the post in overtime, nearly missing another potential game-winner.
The freshman bumped up to the third line to help replace junior Mike Voran, who was ineligible for Friday’s game after a disqualification last Sunday against Miami. The freshman sparked an impressive effort from the Irish third line and may have earned a longer look for the postseason lineup, Jackson said.
“It’s getting close to playoff time and everyone wants to elevate their game. Collectively, we need to keep turning it up,” said Gerths, his linemate.
Rust scored Notre Dame’s only goal in the shootout. He lifted a backhand shot past Slubowski to tie the score for a final time. Balisy answered with his shootout-winning wrist shot on the very next attempt.
Jackson, often outspoken about his distaste for the shootout rules in the CCHA, said the game was a tie in his mind.
“It was a tie game. That’s big for NCAA purposes and we got a point on the road. I’ve said the shootout is a joke from the time that they put it in the league,” he said.
The extra point keeps Western Michigan within one game of first-place Miami as the regular season winds to a close. The Irish are comfortably in third and can clinch home ice advantage in the playoffs if they pick up one more point in tomorrow night’s game.
“We’re already in the playoffs,” Jackson said. “Let’s face facts, we’re playing playoff hockey right now.”
The postseason atmosphere will return again Saturday night to Lawson Arena when Notre Dame and Western Michigan are scheduled to start at 7:35 p.m.