After split, ‘Cats prep for final stretch

kyle.whitney

After losing a close game, 3-2 on Friday night, the NMU Wildcat hockey team rebounded with a 4-1 victory on Saturday in Big Rapids, Mich. and earned a split with conference foe Ferris State.

“It’s always difficult to win on the road in college hockey,” head coach Walt Kyle said. “You’re obviously trying to win both games, but the truth is that if you can go in and be successful and have splits, you’re doing a pretty good job.”

After a poor showing against the Wayne State Warriors in their previous series, the Wildcats may have been a bit unsure of themselves on Friday night.

“It was a bad weekend against Wayne State and it was a bad result,” Kyle said. “I think when you go through something like that, there is always a hesitancy right away going into the next weekend.”

Luckily for the ‘Cats, though, a strong third-period performance on Friday night helped to catapult the team toward Saturday’s four-goal game, which has been a rarity for NMU recently. The win marked only the sixth time this season that NMU scored more than three goals in a contest.

“For us to be able to get that fourth goal that night was a positive, and hopefully it’s something that we can see much more consistently in the back half of the year here,” Kyle said.

When scoring more than three goals, the Wildcats are 5-1 this season.

Reaching the peak

As the end of the season approaches, the offense isn’t the only aspect of the Wildcat team that has begun clicking at the right time.

Over the weekend, NMU goalie Brian Stewart started both games and allowed just four goals on 77 shots (.948 save percentage).

“I thought I had a pretty good weekend. I’m starting to get better and I’m starting to find my game a little bit,” Stewart said. “I wasn’t on my game at the start of the year, but hopefully I can keep playing well for the team.”

The defense in front of Stewart has also started to play better as of late and may be one reason for his improvement. His teammates, however, feel the goalie has initiated the change himself.

“He’s playing really well right now,” sophomore NMU defenseman T.J. Miller said of Stewart. “This weekend was good for him and his confidence. He’s a guy that we definitely need to be back there during the playoffs and further down the road to get us more wins.”

Also making himself known this weekend was junior Wildcat forward Tim Hartung, who, prior to the weekend, had just one point on the season. Hartung collected a goal and an assist on Saturday night.

“I thought [Hartung] was outstanding. He has very good hands and he is a good passer,” Kyle said. “Coming into the year, we had hoped that he would be a real productive guy, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened.”

Kyle felt that the most important aspect of Hartung’s play over the weekend may not have shown up on the score sheet.

“It’ll be huge for us down the stretch if he can continue to play the way that he played,” Kyle said. “Not just production-that’s always a byproduct. If he plays the way that he did, he’s going to be an asset to us.”

The playoff race

The recent split with Ferris State-coupled with a pair of Alaska losses on the weekend-left the Wildcats in eighth place in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. NMU’s 14 points put them just five points behind the fifth-place University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks. The top four teams get a bye in the first round of the CCHA Playoffs, while the fifth through eighth teams host a playoff series in that round.

Each game is worth two points and with only ten contests remaining, the ‘Cats know they need to make the most of their opportunities.

“It’s a race right now for home ice,” Kyle said. “Do I like our position? I wish we were higher, but we’re right in the hunt and right in the mix. One of our goals is to get home ice this year and what we do over our next ten games is going to determine that.”

Before the Wildcats embark on their season-ending ten-game stretch, though, they will first host an exhibition game against the USA under-18 team.

Kyle said the week of practice and the exhibition game will allow the Wildcats to improve their overall conditioning level and to shore up some needed areas of their game before jockeying for final playoff positioning.

“Every game is going to be playoffs, pretty much. Everybody wants to get that [home series],” Miller said. “In the next five weeks, hopefully other teams win and lose to help us and hopefully we keep playing like we did [Saturday] night against Ferris.”

The puck will drop in the exhibition game on Saturday at 7:35 p.m. in the Berry Events Center.