Despite earning the sweep over Bowling Green last weekend, head coach Walt Kyle said the team will need to improve its play if they want to continue the current hot streak when they take on the No. 2 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
“You have to win games when you’re not at the top of your game, and individuals have to step up and win you those games, and we got that, but we need to elevate our level of play,” Kyle said.
During last weekend’s series the Wildcats were outshot 72-35. In Saturday’s game in particular the team was outshot 44-12.
Notre Dame is currently ranked second in the U.S. College Hockey Organization’s national hockey rankings. The last time Northern played the Irish, Oct. 17-18, the Irish came up on top by scores of 3-2 and 4-2. After that weekend Notre Dame went without losing until Jan. 30. During this three-month-plus span the Irish amassed a 17-0-3 record with Notre Dame coming up on top in a shootout in all three ties.
Kyle said his team had to start focusing more this weekend.
“I’m really happy with the wins, but I think we had a lull in our game. When you give up 44 shots and only put 12 on goal you’ve got problems,” Kyle said. “I think we need to improve our intensity and our focus. We gave them too many opportunities and we can’t do that this weekend.”
Junior goaltender Brian Stewart said he agreed with his coach about the importance of the upcoming series.
“This Notre Dame series is going to be huge. It’s going to be the toughest weekend of the year, so we’re going to have to have a great week of practice, and get back to basics,” he said.
Stewart was one player who did not disappoint this past weekend, stopping 28 shots in Friday night’s 3-0 victory, and making 43 saves in the 4-1 victory on Saturday.
“I think Stewart won us the game clearly, and I think we were fortunate,” Kyle said.
Stewart attributed his recent hot streak to an increase in confidence and help from his defense.
“I wasn’t moving too much in the net, and let the shots come to me instead of moving to them,” he said. “With these guys all year, if I make the first save, chances are they’re going to clear the rebound. It’s a huge help, and they’re reading the plays really well.”
Sophomore Gregor Hanson said the team can see Stewart’s improvement.
“We can see that (Stewart) is getting his confidence back in how he moves,” Hanson said. “He’s much more smooth now, and confident.”
Another thing that Kyle said was working for the team this weekend was the penalty killing unit for the Wildcats. Sophomore Jared Brown and freshman Andrew Cherniwichan tallied short handed goals in Saturday’s game.
Kyle said those goals were big for the struggling team.
“We have guys, like every team does, that are capable of making some big plays, and we made some big plays that put us out ahead with some big goals at the right time,” he said.
One player who Kyle said stepped up was senior forward Nick Sirota, who had three assists in last weekend’s swipe.
“Our sophomores and freshmen have been outstanding, and I think Nick Sirota had his best weekend of the year,” Kyle said. “He played with the grit, determination and hunger I haven’t seen in him in a long time.”
Despite thinking his team was outplayed for much of last weekend, Kyle said he thinks they can keep the winning streak going, and pick up some crucial CCHA points against the Irish.
“I’m proud of how this team has been able to string some wins together, but I’m holding them to a higher standard,” he said. “They’ve earned enough of my respect for me to hold them to a higher level.”
NMU will try to continue its winning ways this weekend against the Notre Dame fighting Irish. Both games will be played in South Bend, Ind., with Friday’s starting at 8 p.m. and Saturday’s at 7 p.m.