The NMU hockey team split its weekend series with the No. 5 University of Michigan Wolverines last weekend, winning 2-0 on Friday then dropping a 5-3 decision to a more aggressive Wolverine team on Saturday night.
After last weekend’s split, Northern (2-2-0) now heads to East Lansing to face the No. 12 Michigan State Spartans (2-2-0).
The following weekend the ‘Cats then play host to No. 8 Notre Dame.
“You want to play the best teams,” senior captain Tim Hartung said. “I’d like to play Michigan 36 times this year. I mean, that’s what we’ve got and we’ve got to deal with it. We’ve got to work hard, and do the best we can with it. It’s not going to be easy.”
And when the ‘Cats hit the ice of the Munn Ice Arena on Friday, they’ll be facing one of the biggest – though not in stature – obstacles thus far this season, in Michigan State’s 5-foot 6-inches 155-pound senior goaltender and captain, Jeff Lerg.
Northern’s netminder, junior Brian Stewart, said he looks forward to any match-up with Lerg, the all-conference first-team member, and added that it’s an opportunity to beat one of the best.
“Just looking at him at the other end, you know it’s going to be hard to beat him; it always is,” Stewart said. “I’m just going to have to play my own game – and it’s going to be a battle. You just hope for a good result.”
Hartung had a similar scouting report.
“He’s a great goalie. He’s proved it; he’s got a national title, he’s been good every year. That stuff doesn’t just happen.”
Aside from the goalie, the Spartans are a much different group than the team that Northern defeated in the CCHA playoffs a year ago. This year, MSU will be without Tim Kennedy and Justin Abdelkader, the top two scorers from last season, as both left school early for professional hockey. MSU also lost Bryan Lerg and Chris Mueller to graduation (the third and fifth leading scorers respectively). In their place will be a group of talented freshmen who have already made an impact. Freshmen Andrew Conboy, Daultan Leveille and Tim Buttery each have two points early in the season.
Northern head coach Walt Kyle said, despite State’s losses, the ‘Cats would be facing a nationally-ranked Spartan team that’s looking for a bit of payback after last season’s home playoff loss.
“You’re talking about a team that’s ranked No. 12 in the country, we’re going back to their building, it’s a team we eliminated last year in our league playoffs,” Kyle said.
“There’s no way they’re going to overlook us.”
Kyle added, like Michigan, Michigan State doesn’t necessarily lose players from the hockey program, they reload.
“These guys have the ability to recruit. Every year, even if they’re bringing in 10 freshmen, they are 10 of the best freshmen that were available a year ago,” Kyle said. “And many of the freshmen they bring in won’t be here for four years (because they’ll go pro).”
In preparing for Michigan State, Kyle said there are still a lot of areas that the Wildcats need to improve on.
“We have not found ourselves yet as a team,” he said. “We are not playing shift-in and shift-out with the identity we want.
“We’re not playing with the chemistry we need to within lines, within penalty groups,” Kyle added.
“We have a long way to go in those areas.”
Frosh-ting on the cake
MSU isn’t the only team bringing a solid group of freshmen to this weekend’s games.
When Kyle recruited the current group of freshmen to NMU, he expected they would contribute to the team, but the play of Andrew Cherniwchan, Justin Florek, Tyler Gron, Devan Hartigan and Ben Lindemulder has impressed Northern’s head coach as of late.
For starters, Cherniwchan’s churned out three goals thus far, including one Saturday night.
Compared to Hartung, who has seven goals at NMU, Cherniwchan’s off to a fast start.
“The freshmen are all doing more than I expected, I’ll tell you that much,” Hartung said. “Cherniwchan’s got almost as many goals as I have in my career already.”
Cherniwchan’s head coach has been impressed with the freshman’s performance, as well.
“We expected him to get some scoring. I can’t tell you we expected him to get three goals in five games,” Kyle said. “To me, for a freshman, he’s done an outstanding job.”
Florek, though not yet showing up on the score sheet, has also made an early impact.
“We keep coming back to how well Justin Florek is playing,” Kyle said. “He has been a very very effective player for us for a freshman. He’s done a great job.”
Kyle added that he’s also been pleased with the improvements that Gron has made thus far, and that Lindemulder is continuing to improve as well.
Hartigan, though only seeing action in the Toronto exhibition game, did pick up his first collegiate win, and has served as an adequate backup to Stewart.
“All of the freshmen, to me, they’re doing at least what we’d hoped they’d do,” Kyle said.” And probably significantly more.”
The freshmen on the NMU team are still learning what it means to be a member of the Northern Michigan hockey team, but for the returning players, nearly every one of them can tell you one thing about being a Wildcat: “Everybody ropes, everybody rides.”
“It means everybody’s got to do their job. If everybody works, everybody’s going to reap the rewards,” Kyle said. “We don’t have a culture where we’re going to win here because of a couple of superstars. We’re going to win because everyone does the things that they need to do for us to win. Everyone.”
NMU’s captain added that this year’s team is buying into that idea.
“We’re not going to get better if only half of the guys do it,” Hartung said. “And that’s what we’re doing – everybody’s working hard and everyone’s getting better. I feel like we’re making strides every day.”
Game times are 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday in East Lansing.