On Saturday night in Columbus, the NMU Wildcats were tied late in the game with the Ohio State Buckeyes, moments away from extending their unbeaten streak to six games.
Then, with just one second remaining in regulation, Buckeye forward Tommy Goebel’s shot slipped past sophomore netminder Brian Stewart and, essentially, gave Ohio State the 3-2 victory.
Prior to Saturday’s last-second loss, the ‘Cats (13-16-3 overall, 10-12-2 Central Collegiate Hockey Association) downed the Buckeyes (10-21-3, 6-16-2 CCHA) on Friday night by a score of 2-0.
“We let down at the end,” freshman Wildcat forward Jared Brown said about the loss. “It would’ve been nice to get [two wins], but we just didn’t get the job done at the end.”
NMU head coach Walt Kyle said that a couple of the Wildcat skaters thought an icing call was coming on Saturday’s final play and they had quit by the time the puck was knocked in.
“Like I told our guys, it’s a bad way to learn a good lesson,” he said. “You play to the end of that shift. It’s not your job to call icings. It’s not your job to worry about it.”
Despite allowing three goals on Saturday night, Stewart stopped 75 of 78 Buckeye shots on the weekend and was named the CCHA Goaltender of the Week for the second-straight week. In the past four games, Stewart has allowed four goals on 134 shots for a .970 save percentage.
After the split in Columbus, the Wildcats have now won six of the last seven regular season games and will turn their attention to the road ahead. With four games remaining in the season, the ‘Cats need to worry about playoff positioning and are currently playing for the chance to host a home series in the first round of the upcoming CCHA Playoffs.
“Our goal is to get home ice,” Brown said. “We’re not quite there yet, but we want to get home ice. It’s better to play at the Berry than it is to travel.”
When the playoffs start in two weeks, the top four teams in the CCHA will get first-round byes. The next four teams receive first-round home series and the bottom four teams will be on the road for the entire postseason.
Kyle said, with such a young team, it is imperative that the veteran skaters step up and guide their inexperienced teammates into the playoffs.
“The truth is that your older guys that have been around-we don’t have a lot of those guys-have to do everything that they can to make sure our guys know the significance of playing at home,” he said. “The older guys and the leadership in the room need to make sure our guys are as focused as they can be.”
Currently, the ‘Cats are on pace for a home series, as they sit in eighth place with 22 points. NMU sits just two points-the equivalent of one game-ahead of Alaska. NMU will finish the regular season with a series against the Lake Superior State Lakers on March 1.
Prior to their season-ending matchup with the Lakers, the Wildcats will host the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (14-14-4, 11-11-4) this weekend. Despite being more than 700 miles apart for the majority of the season, the sparks always fly when the Wildcats take on the Mavericks.
“I think it is a big rivalry for us and we’ve had a ton of great, great weekends with them,” Kyle said. “We can’t take this team lightly and, from experience, we should know not to.”
In preparation for the Mavericks, Kyle said NMU is playing the best hockey of the year. The hope, however, is that the team will continue to improve.
“I hope we haven’t peaked, yet,” Kyle said. “I believe you sort of have to peak through the playoffs and keep growing as the playoffs go. Over our last seven or eight games, I would say that we’re playing our best hockey of the year. What I hope is that we have more in there and more to give.”
The puck will drop against Nebraska-Omaha in the Berry Events Center at 7:30 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday.