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The North Wind is an independent student publication serving the Northern Michigan University community. It is partially funded by the Student Activity Fee. The North Wind digital paper is published daily during the fall and winter semesters except on university holidays and during exam weeks. The North Wind Board of Directors is composed of representatives of the student body, faculty, administration and area media.

Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Dallas WiertellaApril 30, 2024

Wildcats prepare for CCHA battles

During NMU’s winter break, things began looking up for the NMU hockey team. After a difficult 1-8 start to the year, the Wildcats had clawed their way back to respectability. In the past month, they went 1-0-1 against Michigan Tech, split a pair of games in the Denver Cup tournament (falling to Dartmouth and beating Sacred Heart), and split a home series with Notre Dame, the reigning CCHA regular season champions.

“I had been really happy with our play ever since that first nine-game stretch,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “Since the Miami series (on Nov. 3) we haven’t been swept throughout that whole stretch. The guys have played well, grown and responded.”

Then NMU (9-14-1 overall, 6-10-0 CCHA) ran into the Wayne State Warriors, a 3-15-2 squad currently struggling through their final season in NCAA hockey. The squad marched into the Berry Events Center last weekend and swept the ‘Cats, 4-1 and 3-2.

Despite the fact that NMU was confident, they may not have been as prepared as they should have been.

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“Our confidence, I guess, really didn’t help us out,” sophomore NMU forward Ray Kaunisto said. “We just weren’t mentally prepared, as we should have been with any team in the nation. They just came out and they wanted it more than we did.”

Kyle called the series a “tremendous disappointment” and felt that although the games were non-conference, his team lost a lot of momentum and must work to regain composure.

“We had created some serious momentum, we were playing well, we had a lot of those wins in other buildings and then we had an opportunity to play at home in front of our fans,” he said. “Instead, we lay two eggs and now we have to spend a week where I’m not happy and things aren’t pleasant around here.”

Stewie’s return

With 12 games remaining, the Wildcats are currently two-thirds of the way through their regular season schedule.

Over the course of a full college hockey season, unexpected things tend to happen. Kyle said that one of the most surprising aspects of this season has been the early inconsistency at the goalie position.

After a shaky start to the year, sophomore Brian Stewart gave way to freshman Reid Ellingson, who has started eight games this year while collecting a .893 save percentage and a 2.96 goals against average.

“Early in the year, I don’t know if [Stewart] was properly prepared,” Kyle said. “I think he just kind of assumed that he was there, he was the guy returning and that he was going to be the starter.”

The coach added that Stewart has turned his play around, though, and the sophomore has since regained his starting role.

Since the beginning of December, Stewart has started seven games and is 3-3-1. He has produced a .937 save percentage and has allowed less than two goals per game in that span. The goalie said that while he doesn’t know what, exactly, caused the slump, he thinks the continuing experience is helping him and that he feels better about his recent play.

“I’m trying to have more fun out there, really,” Stewart said. “I think the experience is helping. Reid (Ellingson) and (fellow-backup) Derek Janzen are both really good goalies and they can compete in any game. You’ve always got to be good if you want to play here.”

Kyle added that although Stewart has clearly staked his claim as the starter, Ellingson will still see ice time this year. The Wildcats will occasionally place the freshman in the crease in an attempt to give him some more experience and to give Stewart some valuable rest down the stretch.

The home stretch

In the next five weeks, the Wildcats will take on a collection of CCHA foes. The gauntlet will serve as a serious test for the team. The ‘Cats will start this weekend by heading south to take on the Ferris State Bulldogs. In the following five weeks, they will play Ohio State and No. 1 Michigan on the road. At home, they will face off with No. 7 Michigan State and the cross-country rival Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks. NMU will wrap up the regular season with a home-and-home series against the Lake Superior State Lakers.

The Wildcats are currently in ninth place in the CCHA, but are within three points of fifth place. And while all CCHA teams make it into the season-ending conference tournament, the final placement matters. The top four teams will receive a first-round playoff bye and the next four teams will host first-round games.

“It’s huge. We’ve got to win all of our home games, I feel,” Stewart said. “I’ve just got to keep going in there and keep playing strong for the team and doing my job. Hopefully, the rest takes care of itself.”

The current NMU team is composed largely of underclassmen that have little experience in college hockey, let alone a season-ending stretch with playoff implications. The older players have been trying to impart the urgency of the situation on their teammates.

“It’s hard to relay the message across to some of the younger guys,” NMU junior forward Nick Sirota said. “It’s hard to kind of teach the freshmen how important it is to get home-ice advantage and to try to climb up the standings as much as we can. The older guys are going to have to try to continue to remind them of how important it is to get as many wins as we can in the CCHA.”

Although the Wayne State loss may have hobbled the Wildcats’ confidence, Kyle said that the team has a chance to determine its own fate and should need no help getting mentally prepared this week.

“Players have an obligation to get themselves ready to play. I think that, as a coach, you want people who have pride in how they perform and pride in how their team performs. We hope we have those guys here and I would think that they understand that.”

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