DETROIT – The last time Western Michigan won a Great Lakes Invitational it took nearly three decades for the Broncos to return to the annual tournament in downtown Detroit.
“We’re concerned,” Broncos coach Andy Murray joked, “because the last time Western Michigan won in 1986 we didn’t get invited back in 30 years. We’re hoping that changes.”
Unlike 1986, the Broncos needed overtime to claim their latest title when forward Justin Kovacs scored at 2:01 of the extra session, giving Western Michigan a 1-0 win over Michigan Tech at Comerica Park on Saturday night.
A fortunate bounce provided the perfect opportunity for Kovacs, who scored his team-leading ninth goal of the season from the bottom of the left circle to knock off the defending tournament champions.
Tech goalie Pheonix Copley could very easily have been the tourney’s MVP for the second straight year. But the sophomore goalie surrendered just his third goal in four career GLI games. He used the paddle of his stick to clear the puck away from the crease but directed right to Kovacs who sent a wrist shot to the back of the net.
“We totally talked about it in the intermission, getting point shots off that back wall because the boards are bouncy back there,” Kovacs said. “Kenney (Morrison) took one off the back wall and as you saw it popped out and I just went to the net and chipped it in.”
Morrison and Shane Berschbach assisted on the game-winner, while sophomore goalie Lukas Hafner was named tournament MVP after making 3 saves in registering his second shutout of the season.
Michigan Tech is used to overtime to decide championship games in the GLI. It was the 10th time the title match has gone to overtime in the tournament’s 49-year history, and the sixth time the Huskies have been involved. Tech played in the longest GLI championship when forward Mel Pearson scored at 2:28 of triple overtime to give the Huskies a 5-4 win over Michigan in 1979.
“I thought it was a good hockey game, both teams created some excellent scoring opportunities,” said Pearson, now the Huskies’ head coach. “It’s a fine line between winning and losing. We just didn’t get the bounce that we needed tonight.”
Michigan Tech (6-10-6) still leads the all-time series, 11-3-1, over the Broncos, including a 4-0 victory in last December’s GLI championship game.
Each team had its chances to score in regulation but both goalies were excellent when called upon.
Western’s best chance to score in regulation came late in the second period when Colton Hargrove raced through the neutral zone on a clear breakaway. However, Copley made a terrific blocker save on Hargrove who tried to beat the Huskies’ goalie high on the short side. Copley made 30 saves in the game.
“Copley was rock-solid for us,” Tech forward Alex Petan said. “He gave us a very good chance to win as he done all season. The game could have gone either way. I thought we worked hard as a team, unfortunately, we ended up on the wrong side.”
Hafner made an amazing game-saving stop of his own in the final six-minutes of the third period, flashing his left leg as Mike Neville tried to slip a shot between the goalie from Toledo, Ohio, and the right post.
“I was seeing a lot of the pucks tonight,” said Hafner, who made 63 saves on 65 shots in two games. “Guys blocked tons of shots, first-time clears, getting the puck out of the zone, the guys played great in front of me.”
Still, Tech could have won the game in the final 2 ½ minutes when with 2:38 left in regulation, the Huskies went on the power play after Western (9-8-3) was assessed a bench penalty for too many men on the ice. Fortunately for the Broncos, Tech’s power play (11-of-110) has been abysmal this season and the game went to overtime scoreless.
“Going into a game like that, Pheonix played great tonight, he’s a great goaltender,” Hafner said, “and it’s a great feeling to come out on top for sure.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose