Hockey ’Cats prep for CCHA playoffs

Trevor Pellerite

The regular season couldn’t have ended much better for the Wildcat hockey team, as they managed to secure fourth place in the conference with a sweep of the Lake Superior State Lakers on Feb. 26-27.

The 2-1 overtime win and 3-0 shutout locked up fourth in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) and a first round bye in the conference playoffs, NMU’s first since the 2005-06 season. The series also catapulted the ’Cats back onto the national scene, where they are currently No. 16 in the polls.

Going into the final regular season series, the Wildcats controlled their own playoff destiny. They needed six points to secure a bye and keep ahead of the chasing Michigan Wolverines, and six points is what they earned.

“We put ourselves in a position that by winning or gaining enough points in that series, what you did was you wind up winning a round of the playoffs,” said head coach Walt Kyle. “Going into the series, our guys knew the significance of it, and I was real happy with the way they responded.”

The game on Friday, Feb. 26 was knotted at a goal per side after 60 minutes of regulation, and the Wildcats went into overtime for the 10th time this season. Three minutes in, junior Wildcat forward Mark Olver took a feed from junior Jared Brown near the goal and took it across the crease, leaving him one-on-one with Laker goaltender Brian Mahoney-Wilson. Olver flipped the puck over Mahoney-Wilson’s shoulder for the game winner, his second goal of the game.

“Mark has been playing, in my opinion, over the last six to eight games, the best hockey of his career. He continues to grow and take big steps as a player,” Kyle said. “He’s a big time player; if you’re going to win, your best players have to be your best players.”

The Saturday, Feb. 27 game was the team’s senior night celebration, and they were honored with the team’s fifth shutout performance of the season. Sophomore forward Tyler Gron tallied two goals and Olver added another three assists on the evening. Senior goalie Brian Stewart earned his fourth shutout of the year, turning away all 33 Laker shots. He said that turning in a shutout was a great experience on senior night.

“It was unbelievable. My mom was there, it was just a good feeling,” he said. “I thought we played sound defensively. We owed it to them for kicking our ass earlier in the year.”

The Wildcats currently sit with an overall record of 17-11-8 and a final CCHA record 13-9-6-3.

Olver and Stewart both earned CCHA Player of the Week honors for their performances against the Lakers, and Olver was also named CCHA Player of the Month (POTM) for February. It was the second time Olver was named POTM. Despite his offensive production lately, Olver was quick to give all credit to the team as a whole.

“It was a team game … it was a really good team effort,” Olver said. “I think we’ve shown all year what our team can do.”

After the first round of playoffs last weekend, Alaska-Fairbanks emerged as the fifth seed destined for Marquette. The best-of-three series will run from Friday, March 12 to possibly Sunday, March 14. The Nanooks (18-9-9 overall, 11-9-8-4 CCHA) were fifth in the regular season standings, currently sit in the No. 12 spot nationally and are tied for seventh place in the PairWise Rankings.

The two teams have clashed four times already this season, tying the first three games. The ’Cats came away from the fourth game with a nail-biting 3-2 victory, and Kyle is expecting more of the same this weekend.

“It’s very rare when you get to a playoff series and you’re hosting it in your own building, that you’re the underdog. Certainly, we’re going into this series as an underdog,” he said. “I like the fact that we’re playing at home. Obviously, it’s some pretty evenly matched hockey teams.”

Two aspects of their game the ’Cats will need to improve on if they are to have success this time around are penalty minutes and faceoffs. The ’Cats racked up 18 penalties in their last series against Alaska, and Kyle knows that will have to change.

The Wildcats also need improvement in the faceoff circle, as they lost out on many offensive opportunities against the Lakers because of lost faceoffs. They lost 76 of the 148 faceoffs on the weekend. Senior forward Matt Butcher is the team’s faceoff specialist, and Kyle believes that as he recovers from injury, his contributions will grow.

Regardless, Kyle has faith his team will come out hard and take care of business.

“I’ve been real happy with where we’ve been for a long time, I think we’ve been playing pretty good hockey,” he said. “The guys have had a real disciplined approach. We know where we are, and we know what we need to do.”

The weekend has huge implications for both the CCHA playoff picture and the NCAA tournament, but Olver said the team isn’t worried about it.

“It’s just another weekend for us right now, that’s the way we’re looking at it,” he said. “We know they’re going to be excited, we’re going to be excited, and we’re just happy to be in this situation right now.”

The puck will drop each night in the Berry Events Center at 7:35 p.m., and Stewart believes the home ice will be a factor in the game.

“I hope we have a good crowd. It is definitely to our advantage, but we’re kind of the underdog going into this series,” Stewart said. “It’s going to be one hell of a series.”