The Wildcat hockey team is taking its NCAA-required week off, and with a record of 2-5-1 (1-4-1-0 CCHA) and a five-game winless streak, the break couldn’t come at a better time.
“Game after game, if you don’t get a win, it gets at you,” senior forward Nick Sirota said. “It’s like, ‘What’s the difference? What are we doing wrong here?’ Right now, it’s definitely time to refocus.”
For a team that started the season ranked nationally and was picked to finish fourth and fifth in CCHA preseason polls, the first eight games have been disappointing. But, head coach Walt Kyle said it’s not time to push the panic button just yet.
“I told our guys, I’m going to judge you on quality of play and not wins and losses,” he said. “If quality of play is good, wins and losses will come.”
According to Kyle, NMU’s quality of play is getting there, so making drastic changes at this point in the season would be a mistake.
“You’ve got to try to build your dykes, not just put your fingers in the holes,” he said. “It’s like a dam that’s breaking, and the teams that are putting their fingers in the holes are the ones that have problems.”
NMU has played close with Notre Dame, and even closer with Michigan State. Despite not picking up a win in either series, the ‘Cats on-ice performance has shown improvement. After last Saturday’s 4-2 loss to Notre Dame, Kyle said the ‘Cats needed to continue to improve if they want to better their current record.
“We’ve shown we can beat [the top teams], and that’s a step we have to take,” he said.
Unlucky breaks against NMU have proved to be big factors this season. Against Michigan State, a power-play goal off a Spartan skate proved the difference maker; and last weekend against Notre Dame, the puck skidded off an Irish skater for a goal. But puck luck isn’t the entire story.
“You’ve got to work for your breaks, too,” Sirota said. “Maybe what we’re doing, we’re not getting those breaks for a certain reason, and we need to find that reason. Each team has those four different chances that might or might not go in. We have to find whatever reason it is, for us to come out on the plus side of that.”
Last season, the Wildcats were in much the same position, with a record of 1-7-0. Last year’s team then went on to finish strong, defeating Notre Dame in the CCHA Championship third-place game.
Returning assistant captain and junior defenseman TJ Miller said it’s not an impossible task to come back and compete, both in the conference and nationally.
“I think we know what it takes to get through this tough stretch,” Miller said. “We’ve gone through Michigan, we’ve gone through Notre Dame and (Michigan) State, so we know that we are going to come into games where we should win from now on — same as last year. Then again, going through this, we know we can’t let any more games slip away. I think we’re past that point now.”
Sirota added that, this early in the season, the ‘Cats weren’t out of contention for the CCHA or the NCAA tournament.
“I definitely don’t think that we’re the type of team that’s going to give up or think that we’re out of any kind of spot in the standings,” he said. “But once again, we’re going to have to climb out of a deep hole, and week by week, we’re going to have to put some sturdy soil underneath us to climb out of that hole.”
For the Wildcats to turn things around, they’re going to have to pick up the special teams play, cut down on the penalties and increase the overall scoring — all statistical categories the ‘Cats are struggling in.
The team is 1-for-34 on power play opportunities, second worst in the conference. Only Alaska-Anchorage has less goals with the extra attacker (zero). According to Sirota, the power play team has been consistently changing since the beginning of the year, in an attempt to find a bit of chemistry.
“We’ve been changing it every week, and I don’t think we can find anything we want to stick with,” he said. “Maybe we’ll go back to something we did before (against Bowling Green), or try something new again.”
Sirota, added that special teams was one of the most important aspects to the team that needed work.
“Special teams is a key to pretty much every game we’ve played,” he said. “If we can figure that out, I think we’ll be in a pretty good spot.”
The NMU penalty kill team, which had let up no power play goals going into Michigan State two weekends ago, has now let six power play goals go past Stewart. Miller, a defenseman who plays on the penalty kill, said during the week off, the Wildcats will be thinking about how to improve that part of the special teams play.
“It’s definitely something we have in the back of our heads,” he said. “Obviously, the last few games have been tough for us, giving up a lot of goals and not being able to produce on the power play.”
Northern’s penalty minutes rank near the bottom of the conference, as well, with 14.2 minutes per game — good for third to last.
“We just need to be a more disciplined team,” assistant captain Billy Smith said. “And we need to start playing together more.”
One thing’s for sure: you can’t win without scoring goals.
While Michigan State is last in the conference in scoring offense (1.88 goals per game), the Wildcats are close behind. According to the ‘Cats head coach, averaging just two goals offensively has made junior goaltender Brian Stewart’s role in net a much more difficult one.
“I think Stewart’s been fine for us,” Kyle said. “It’s the goal support around him that needs to change. One night we scored five goals (against Michigan Tech), the rest of the year, we scored three goals once, and never scored more than two.”
Miller said the lack of scoring might have something to do with some frustration.
“We’ve got to put pucks in the net. It’s something that’s been a little hard for us to do right now,” Miller said. “Our top guys from last year aren’t really producing too much right now. I think they’re getting a little too tight of a grip on their sticks when they see the net because they’re getting frustrated.
“But, you kind of go through that every year,” he added. “So, I guess it’s kind of a good thing that we’re going through it now and hopefully, we can get guys scoring and getting a little more confidence and build from there.”
Expectation and anticipation
Coming in to the season, players on Northern’s team expected to be in a much better position than they currently are. Stewart, who has faced more shots thus far (191) than any goaltender in the conference, said he expected the outcome of the first eight games to be the opposite from the previous season.
“The whole time, before this season, we talked about how we would come off to a really good start and surprise a lot of people,” Stewart said. “But now, when we’re 2-5-1, we’re kind of down.”
Even the opposition expected more from NMU. Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said, after Saturday night’s game, that he didn’t expect to be leaving Marquette with two wins.
“I’m pleasantly pleased [with the two wins]. Surprised, a bit, because I know how good of a team Northern is,” Jackson said. “And I know how good of a team they’ll be next time we see them in our building in January. What we saw in the third period is kind of what we anticipated, and we saw spurts of that.”
The next game for the Wildcats is two weekends from now, when they travel to Bowling Green. Stewart said NMU will have to play like they have nothing to lose to pick up the win.
“I think we’ll be going into Bowling Green with high expectations, and we’re going to play like that,” Stewart said. “We need to play like that, with a full 60 minutes of desperation.”