Wildcats split on Alaskan expedition

kyle.whitney

Over the weekend, the Northern Michigan Wildcat hockey team faced many obstacles, including a trip of over 6,000 miles, a pair of hockey games, the expected physical fatigue and a winter storm that slowed the return trip.

After losing the first road game to the Alaska Nanooks 4-1, the Wildcats managed to win Saturday’s game 4-2 and they left Fairbanks, Ala. with a split.

“It was obviously a tough road trip, going all the way up to Alaska, but any road trip that you can split on is great,” sophomore NMU defenseman Al Dorich said.

With the win, NMU picked up two points in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) and the team is now tied for sixth in the conference.

“We’ve won five of seven right now and I’m much happier with that than I was with the start of the season, obviously,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said.

On Friday night, Northern (6-10-0 overall, 5-9-0 CCHA) fell behind 2-0 in the first period and was never able to catch up with the Nanooks (1-8-1, 1-6-1). Senior Wildcat forward Andrew Sarauer picked up his first goal of the year and freshman netminder Reid Ellingson allowed four goals on 24 Nanook shots in the loss.

The following night, sophomore goalie Brian Stewart made the start for NMU, stopping 26 of 28 shots and picking up the win.

“We wanted to get Stewart going, too, and he had played pretty good in his [last] start,” Kyle said. “We gave him an opportunity and he played very well.”

Saturday was a little more of the same for the NMU offense, as freshman forward Greger Hanson and junior forward Nick Sirota each scored, while freshman forward Mark Olver netted a pair. At this point in the season, the three players have combined for 21 goals in 16 games.

“It’s something that we’ve got to keep going,” Sarauer said of the varied offensive production. “For myself, it hasn’t been a great year offensively, but any time I can chip it, it’s going to be a positive.”

The team has now played 16 of the 36 scheduled regular season games. And although the season-opening 1-8 record wasn’t what the ‘Cats had hoped for, they seem to be heading in the right direction after winning five of their last seven.

“I would’ve liked to have had a couple more wins in that first stretch,” Kyle said. “But I think we’re coming around, we’re starting to make progress and that, really, is what it’s about.”

The change in record could be attributed to a selection of maturing young players who are making a splash early on in their careers.

Phil Fox, Jared Brown, Hanson and Olver are all freshman forwards and have already combined for 17 goals this season. In comparison, the four freshman forwards from last year’s team scored just four goals all season.

“We knew we had a young group of guys coming in. The 1-8 start is something we didn’t want to happen,” Sarauer said. “We’ve just got to keep winning and take care of our jobs and [the record] will take care of itself.”

Looking ahead

Kyle didn’t have to deal with the weather that slowed his players’ return to Marquette. After the Alaska series, the coach began a scouting trek across Canada that will stretch the length of the team’s current off week.

While on the road, Kyle watched a British Columbia Hockey League game between the Nanaimo Clippers and the Westside Warriors. Kyle’s interest stemmed from the fact that Clippers’ forward Andrew Cherniwchan was recently signed by the Wildcats, along with forwards Justin Florek and Tyler Gron and defenseman Cory Pritz.

“I just got to watch Cherniwchan play last night and he’s going to be a very good player,” Kyle said. “He and Gron are going to add some stuff to our team.”

Gron is currently playing for the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

Pritz plays for the Westside Warriors that Cherniwchan’s Clippers faced off against on Tuesday. Although the Clippers won the game 3-2-with a Cherniwchan assist on the game-winning goal-both players will be side by side soon enough.

Of the four signings, the gem may be Florek, a Marquette native currently playing for the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 Team (USNTDP). Florek was given an A ranking on the NHL’s Central Scouting early list. The ranking designates a player that is projected to be chosen in the first or second round of the NHL draft.

“Florek is a very good, young, local player and he’s going to go somewhere high in the NHL draft,” Kyle said. “He comes from a very good family, a local family. He has a lot of character and a lot of work ethic and we feel blessed to be able to get him.”

Taking the Ramada

After the week off, NMU will face rival Michgan Tech (6-7-1 overall) in a home-and-home series starting on Friday, Dec. 14.

The weekend series will decide which team gets control of the Ramada Cup for the upcoming year. Each season, the cup is awarded to the team that wins the most games in the series between NMU and Tech.

“Obviously, Tech is always a good team,” Dorich said. “We always look forward to playing them and it’s a big series. We won our first game with them and they’ll come out hard when they come to our rink.”

And although the ‘Cats will have to deal with finals during the week leading up to the Tech series, Kyle doesn’t think that focus should be a problem for the players.

“I think our guys are going to understand the importance of that series,” he said. “That’s important for our hockey team to do well against Michigan Tech and I think the guys will understand that and be ready.”

Northern Michigan won the first game of the season against Tech, 3-2.