BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — The few fans who braved the elements for Tuesday's North American Hockey League game at Centre ICE were treated to a spectacular finish.
What was more of a defensive battle through two periods opened up in the third -- in more ways than one -- as Traverse City earned a 5-4 North American Hockey League victory over Kalamazoo.
Tied 1-1, the teams went on a splurge of goals and penalties, even throwing in a fight involving TC goalie Kyle Laslo to boot.
"It was a crazy third period," North Stars coach Chad Fournier said. "We kind of got away from how we had been playing. We had been playing simple and playing hard. We got away from that a little, and they got some goals. But we clamped down there at the end. We won, so we'll take it. They don't all have to be pretty."
The Stars went up 5-2 on a flurry of third-period goals, then let the Wings back in the game with a pair of short-handed markers and had to survive a number of Kalamazoo attacks at the end, including a brief 6-on-4. Oh, and the goalie fight.
"We came out in the third period and scored a bunch of goals really quick," Laslo said. "They got one, and then the whole scrum happened. That was the first one of my career."
Traverse City had opened it up to lead 5-2 on goals by Jared VanWormer, Kyle Schempp, Michal Toman and Sean Murphy when the game's most interesting moment occurred with 12 minutes remaining.
Kalamazoo forward Austin Hervey came free for a break-away and ran into Laslo -- who took exception -- and the Stars' 195-pound netminder fell on top of and then started repeatedly punching the 218-pound Western Michigan University commit with his catching-glove hand.
"He's always trying to get under everyone's skin," Laslo said of Hervey. "He hit me. I was upset. I fell on top of him. I didn't feel like he tried to avoid the contact, so I got a little upset. In the heat of the game, that's what happens. I think I got him a couple times."
The two have met up before, meeting in high school hockey and lacrosse when Hervey's Detroit Catholic Central faced Laslo's Hartland squad.
"He does fine," Fournier said of Laslo's scuffle, which almost turned into a total goalie fight when Kalamazoo's Alex Okicki came skating out of his crease but stopped near mid ice when he heard his bench urging him to stay back. "He played in Canada last year; he's tough. That's the first (fight) I've seen him in -- and I hope it's the last. We don't need him fighting too often."
As it was, TC's Eric Rivard -- who opened up the scoring 30 seconds into the game -- was given the boot for entering the fray and trying to pull Hervey off Laslo.
The North Stars, playing at home for the first time since Dec. 9, moved all alone into third in the North Division, five points behind the K-Wings with three games in hand.
Traverse City's third-period goal flurry included several stellar efforts.
VanWormer chopped a Nathan Harris slapshot out of the air and through Okicki's legs for a 2-1 lead 55 ticks into the third. Schempp then had the top goal of the day, dangling through three K-Wings defenders and snapping off a hard wrister into the top of the net. The Stars were on a line change, leaving Schempp as the only skater to go against all of Kalamazoo's defense.
"Kyle's had a tough time the last four or five games," Fournier said. "That was one of his best games of the year. He's very, very skilled and can make stuff like that happen."
Kyle Gattelaro scored for Michigan before Toman skated right into the teeth of the Wings' defense and fired a top-shelf wrister that struck home for a 4-2 lead 4:28 into the final stanza.
"We've gotten a little away from shooting the puck," Fournier said. "And on both (Schempp's and Toman's goals), instead of trying to make one more move, we shot the puck -- and look what happened."
Murphy made it a commanding 5-2 bulge, dragging around a defender before getting off a shot that was stopped by Okicki, but Murphy found his own rebound.
The Stars had a brief 5-on-3 power play before a Toman holding call turned it into a rare 4-on-3 that Michigan cashed in for a Danny Hamburg short-handed goal, and 37 seconds later Brandon Flood broke away for another short-hander to pull Kalamazoo within a goal with 10:13 remaining.
"They blocked a shot and the guy came down and made a nice move and the puck hit me in the hip and went in," Laslo said of Hamburg's goal. "I tried to come out (on Flood) and stop the puck and it seemed like it kind of died on me and he got to it first. I thought our team had a really gutsy effort and we came out on top."
"Our power play didn't execute too well and they got two great opportunities and they buried it," Fournier said. "We've got to work on our power play. We can't let special teams lose us games."
Flood cashed in a Gattelaro pass across the crease for a one-timer to even the score 1-1 at 7:34 of the second period.
Toman missed an open net one a one-timer less than 30 seconds before Flood's goal, Schempp picked the pocket of Trevor Boyd for a rush opportunity and Laslo made a great sliding pad save on Gattelaro to prevent a break-away goal.
Rivard started off the scoring, snatching up a pass from Mitch Snider for a backhander goal 30 ticks into the game. Snider chipped the puck off the boards past a defender in an attempt to pass it to himself, but Rivard was in position to take the pass in stride for an early 1-0 lead in front of 154 spectators.