NMU ends season with third place CCHA finish

kyle.whitney

After a season-ending third-place finish in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) Tournament, the NMU Wildcats are now forced to look back at the 2007-2008 season, while preparing for the future.

The ‘Cats, who finished the regular season 20-20-4 overall, ended the season with a 2-1 victory last Sunday over the No. 12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the CCHA third-place game.

“At the end of the year, your record is not the key thing,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “To me, it was just the way we were playing. I thought we played so well down the stretch. I could see individual growth and I could see guys doing the things that we asked of them as a team. We were a good hockey team in the last third of the year.”

The win over Notre Dame (15-9-4 CCHA, 24-15-4) came the night after a 6-4 loss to the No. 1 Michigan Wolverines (20-4-4, 31-5-4).

An inexperienced NMU team started the season with 19 underclassmen and struggled to a 1-8 record – six of those games were against Michigan, Miami and Michigan State. After all was said and done for the 2008 regular season, those three teams were at the top of the CCHA and each was nationally ranked. All told, 17 of NMU’s 44 games came against the CCHA’s top four squads.

“We had a really tough schedule,” Kyle said. “At the end of the day, we had as tough a schedule as there is in our league – or in the country, in my opinion. That is something that is only going to help us down the line.”

In addition to battling a tough schedule, the ‘Cats had to deal with low expectations throughout the year. Back in September, NMU was selected to finish 10th in the CCHA according to the preseason media poll and was predicted to finish eighth in the coaches’ poll. Those expectations made the third-place finish that much sweeter for the team.

“We still had people to prove wrong,” senior NMU forward Matt Siddall said about preparing for the game. “We were still playing for that third place and that meant a lot considering how we started the year and where the media and coaches polls’ kind of placed us.”

Siddall picked up a goal and an assist against Notre Dame in his emotional final game as a Wildcat.

“I definitely wanted to finish the season and my college career on a high note and I let the guys in the room know that,” he said.

After scoring 14 goals and 26 assists in his first three seasons, Siddall exploded offensively this season, netting 18 goals and tacking on 18 assists.

“The one thing I’ll tell you that [Siddall] started to do this year is shoot the puck,” Kyle said. “He’s had an NHL shot since the day he got here, but he’s gone through years with 40 shots or 30-some shots. Now he’s starting to shoot the puck and pucks go in when you do that.”

The coach referred to Siddall as a prototypical power forward and said that he was the type of player that Kyle preferred: tough, gritty and emotional.

“Matt Siddall wasn’t wearing a letter this year, but you’d be remiss to say that he wasn’t a big leader for us,” he said. “He was, for sure.”

After playing in 147 games for the Wildcats over the last four seasons, Siddall has plenty of memories to look back on.

“One of the biggest things I learned through NMU hockey and through Walt is how to battle through adversity,” he said. “There’s always going to be ups and the ups are great. More importantly, I think, it’s the downs that I learned a lot more from and being able to turn things around when things weren’t looking too good.”

Siddall now hopes to continue with hockey beyond NMU. First, however, he will complete his degree in business-entrepreneurship and if his hockey career fails to materialize, he will have something to fall back on.

“I’m definitely going to play next year and we’ll see what happens. I think I want to take some time off right now and kind of let the body heal up a bit. I’ll play next year and we’ll see what happens, but I’m not going to force anything for years to come. If things happen, things happen. If they don’t, I’d definitely like to travel and see the world. I’ve got a lot of other things to do.”

As far as the Wildcats go, Kyle said that his team was able to compete with anyone in the country at the end of the season. His young team has now gained some important experience and he said that the next few years could be an exciting time for NMU hockey.

“Right now [the guys] have to understand how close they are,” Kyle said. “We say in the locker room all the time, ‘Never too high. Never too low.’ We’re close, but we haven’t arrived yet. We haven’t done anything yet.

“We have a vision of where we want to go and we have to understand that it’s a difficult road to get there,” Kyle added. “We can’t ever let up.”