The NMU hockey team had plenty to be thankful for around the Thanksgiving holiday, as they extended their unbeaten streak to six games with a home sweep of University of Nebraska-Omaha and a pair of ties at Alaska-Fairbanks. The conference games bring the ‘Cats to 5-5-4 overall and 4-3-3 in Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) play.
The Nov. 20-21 series against UNO brought the Wildcats their first home victories of the season, as they beat the visiting Mavericks (7-4-3 overall, 4-4-2 CCHA) by scores of 5-1 and 6-3.
“We moved the puck well in that series, I thought we were sharp, had a lot of energy. We used the home ice to our advantage for the first time all year,” head coach Walt Kyle said.
The ‘Cats continued their quality play the following weekend against Alaska, battling fatigue and a lot of travel miles to earn 3-3 and 4-4 ties. NMU lost both shootouts, surrendering the extra conference point to the Nanooks, but the two the Wildcats earned were enough to bring them into a tie with UNO for sixth in the CCHA.
“You’re never satisfied unless you win. At the end of the day, the extra points for the wins are what are important,” Kyle said. “But I thought we played well. I had a chance to watch the tape that night, but I thought for the most part we controlled the play, especially late in the game.”
Saturday night, the ‘Cats went into the third period down two goals and battled back to earn the tie, something Kyle was very pleased to see.
“This team’s shown a lot of character, and a lot of resilience. They’ve come back now a number of times, I’m really happy with them,” he said. One of the Wildcats’ goals came with under a second to play in the second period, showing a dogged determination that has come to typify NMU hockey this season.
“I really like this, there’s no stop in them. Right now, we’re six games in a row now without a loss. Guys are playing hard, they’re playing right through shifts and right through periods, and I like it,” Kyle said.
One of the keys to Saturday’s comeback was sophomore goaltender Reid Ellingson, who came into the game after senior Brian Stewart was beaten for the Nanooks’ fourth goal. Ellingson stopped all 16 shots he faced in the remainder of regulation.
Kyle commended his goalie’s performance, especially since the sophomore had to go in cold off the bench.
“It’s a real great trait for a goalie to have,” Kyle said. “He came back in and shut the door for almost two periods.”
Ellingson’s save percentage of 93.8 percent is currently ranked second in the nation.
Another bright spot for the Wildcats through the two series was junior forward Greger Hanson. Hanson had three points in each of the four games, and his performance against Alaska earned him CCHA Offensive Player of the Week.
“I’ve been starting to work harder in practice and try to skate as hard as I can when I’m out there. I think it carries over to the game,” Hanson said.
After turning in just one point in the previous 10 games, Hanson feels relieved to finally be scoring.
“It definitely feels good, there was a lot of pressure in the beginning, but now that the wins start piling up, it just feels good being on the board too,” he said.
Senior Ray Kaunisto has also been hot for the Wildcats lately, turning in three goals and four assists in his last four games. Already this season, Kaunisto has 12 points in 14 games. Last year, he tallied 14 points in 40 games.
“I give all the credit to Greger Hanson,” Kaunisto said. “He’s really hot and I’m just riding his coattails.”
Kaunisto and Hanson are on a line with freshman Chad Pietila, a trio that has been responsible for much of NMU’s offensive production.
“We’re just trying to work as hard as we can, keeping the game simple, going to the net hard, and good things are coming,” said Kaunisto.
Up next for the ‘Cats is a home series against CCHA foe Michigan State University, a series that has turned into an interesting rivalry in the past few years.
“They’re a good team, I expect them to come in here well prepared. They’re going to want to maintain the spread that they have on us now, and more important, add to it,” said Kyle.
The series against the Spartans begins on Friday, Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the Berry Events Center.