Although last weekend’s games against visiting Bowling Green didn’t go perfectly for the NMU hockey team, things could have been much worse.
After earning a 6-0 victory and a 3-3 tie against the Falcons (3-18-3 overall, 2-13-3-2 Central Collegiate Hockey Association play), the ‘Cats came away with five conference points and extended their unbeaten streak to six games. Brian Stewart backstopped the ‘Cats to Saturday’s shootout victory.
Head coach Walt Kyle said he thought a change in mindset from previous games helped the Wildcats succeed.
“One of the things that we talked about and wanted to emphasize was we wanted to control the tempo,” Kyle said. “I thought we really did that. I thought we came out on Friday and set the tempo, and both nights we were really effective on the powerplay.”
The Wildcats put on a goal scoring clinic on Friday, racking up goal after goal against the ineffective Falcons. Junior Greger Hanson led the way with four points on the evening, coming off two goals and two assists. The four other Wildcat goals all came from different sources, something Kyle was pleased to see.
“I was really pleased with our output; I think it was really spread out across the board. It shows that we have guys that can respond if we have to,” he said.
One skater who found the back of the Falcon’s net was sophomore Tyler Gron, who started the scoring for the ‘Cats on both nights and brought his season goal total up to five.
“It was a good weekend for me, obviously the most important thing is getting the team going, but it was nice to help the guys out and get a couple goals,” Gron said.
Brian Stewart made 23 saves for his second shutout of the season and has now allowed just seven goals in his last six games.
Saturday’s game began very differently for the ‘Cats, as they spotted the Falcons a one-goal lead to take into the first intermission. In Kyle’s estimation, a failed five on three powerplay opportunity by the Wildcats early on set the tone for the game.
“Those things really have a way of changing the tempo of the game both ways, if you score you’re off and going, and we didn’t score,” Kyle said. “All of a sudden they end up killing a minute and a half of five on three, and that’s a huge momentum swing for them.”
After an ineffective second period, NMU faced a two goal deficit to start the third. Fortunately for them, the Wildcats came out firing on all cylinders for the third period, however, and clawed their way back to tie the game at three apiece with goals from senior Billy Smith and sophomore Justin Florek.
After an indecisive overtime period the game went to a shootout to determine the league points. Hanson and junior Mark Olver scored while Stewart stopped two Falcon shooters to give NMU the extra point. Although a regulation win would have been optimal, Kyle was pleased to win the shootout.
“It was great, five out of six points is good. You knew they were going to come out [after being beat 6-0] and respond,” he said.
Gron thinks the team realized the implications Saturday’s game could have and fought back into things.
“I think we just kind of realized how important the game was. After winning 6-0 on Friday night, you can’t come out and lose Saturday night,” Gron said. “We just came in here after the first period, we didn’t say much, we just knew what we had to do. We got things going pretty quick, and it was nice to tie that game up. It was a game we needed to win.”
The Wildcats currently sit tied for eighth place in the CCHA with Ohio State University, and are ranked No. 23 in the PairWise rankings.
NMU’s upcoming series against the University of Nebraska-Omaha could have important league and tournament implications. The ‘Cats will travel to Omaha after sweeping the Mavericks (10-11-5 overall, 6-10-2-1 CCHA) in Marquette earlier this year. Wins against Omaha are crucial if the ‘Cats are to finish the season the way they want to.
“Our goal right now is to finish in the top four in our league, which is very attainable and to get home ice in the playoffs,” Kyle said. “We’ve got to win if we’re going to have some success in the playoffs.”
Gron knows that keeping the intensity up will be the key to victory.
“It’s all work ethic right now, we just need to want it more than the other team. Nebraska’s a good team. We had some luck with them when they came here earlier in the year, but things aren’t going to be as easy,” he said.
The ‘Cats will play at home next on Jan. 29 and 30 for a series against Alaska-Fairbanks.