BACK TO THE JOE

kyle.whitney

It took three days, nine and a half periods of hockey and an overtime goal to complete the task, but the Northern Michigan Wildcats bested the defending national champion Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing and advanced in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) Playoffs last weekend.

Sophomore NMU forward Matt Butcher netted the winning goal just over 11 minutes into the first overtime of Sunday night’s decisive third game.

Midway through the overtime, NMU head coach Walt Kyle watched his top power-play line skate off the first 90 seconds of an advantage without much production.

“We get our second power play (line) out and now the clock is ticking, down to about six seconds left,” he said. “I’m actually on the bench thinking, ‘OK. The next call is going against us. We just missed a great chance and we’re going to have to kill [a penalty].'”

It was then-in the waning seconds of that overtime power play-that Butcher took a long pass from teammate T.J. Miller and sped into the Spartan zone.

“I threw the puck back to [forward Greger Hanson], because he was the high guy,” Butcher said of the series-winning play. “He did a great job getting it back to me. I kind of leaned in and shot and the next thing I knew, I saw the red light coming on.”

And while Butcher may not have the most vivid recollection of the play itself, he certainly remembers the emotions that followed.

“It was just total excitement and total awe that we did it,” he said. “Everybody was just so happy.”

The overtime thriller came after the two teams split Friday and Saturday’s games, with Michigan State winning Friday’s contest 5-1 and NMU squaring the series with a 2-1 victory on Saturday.

One of the most important things the ‘Cats were able to do after Friday’s loss was to completely forget about it, Kyle said.

“That one was in the bank. As soon as the clock hit 60 minutes on that one, it was over,” he said. “And the way [the guys] rebounded speaks volumes.”

It was the second time in as many weeks that Northern lost the first game of a playoff series before fighting back to advance to the next round.

“It isn’t just this series,” Kyle said. “When you look at the Ohio State series (March 7-9), and you look at this series, and you look at our year, these guys have shown a tremendous amount of guts and character. I couldn’t be prouder with the character of this team. To me, that is what Northern hockey is about and that is what gives us the opportunity to potentially win a championship right now.”

Another facet of the team that may help down the road is the ability for any player to contribute on any given night, Kyle said.

Butcher netted the deciding marker on Sunday, while Saturday’s game-winner came off the stick of sophomore forward Ray Kaunisto. Senior forward Andrew Sarauer also netted a goal on Sunday. Heading into the weekend, those three had combined for just 15 goals on the year.

“You know Nick (Sirota) and (Mark) Olver will definitely score,” Butcher said. “But I think the biggest part of our team is that everyone contributes and no one cares who scores the goals, so long as they go in.”

With the victory, the Wildcats earned a return to CCHA semi-final play in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena after a one-year hiatus. On the other hand, this weekend will mark the first time in 17 years-and just the second in 27-that the Michigan State Spartans will not be playing in the Joe at some point during the postseason.

Heading into the weekend, the Spartans were 49-4 in home playoff games and had never lost a series in East Lansing’s Munn Arena.

“It’s definitely a big deal,” Butcher said of the victory. “If you look at their home playoff record, it’s 49-4 before we came in and that’s intimidating in itself. To win those two games gives everybody on the team the confidence that we can do a lot with this run.”