The Wildcats are bound for Detroit for the third year in a row. The ’Cats earned a trip to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) semifinals after a two-game sweep of the Alaska Nanooks on March 12 and 13. The 4-3 and 5-1 victories improve the Wildcats to 19-11-8 overall on the season.
The first game of the quarterfinal round was played on Friday, March 12, and played out much like any other game this year between the Nanooks and Wildcats. NMU jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in the first period off tallies from juniors Greger Hanson and Andrew Fernandez and sophomore Tyler Gron. Freshman Kyle Follmer added a goal at the start of the second period, and a Wildcat win seemed to be all but assured.
“We got off to a great start in that game, which was huge for us,” said head coach Walt Kyle. “We had a number of guys who were down and ill, and I thought potentially would get fatigued. It was important we got off to a good start, and we were able to do that.”
The then-No. 12 Nanooks refused to go down easily, though, scoring one goal in the second period and two more in the third.
The NMU defense held tough, however, and came away with a victory to start the best-of-three series.
“I thought they came back late, I thought our guys did a good job being resilient, bending but not breaking,” Kyle said.
Saturday, March 13 started out like it would be a tough night for the ’Cats as they managed just two shots on goal in the first 20 minutes. Kyle didn’t feel it necessary to say much to his team during the first intermission.
“I went in the locker room and just told our guys, ‘I’m not going to say a thing, I’m going to let the captains do it,’ and they did a great job,” he said.
Senior defenseman T.J. Miller was one athlete who stepped up and exhibited leadership during the break.
“We had a pretty slow start in the first period, seniors stepped up and we kind of ripped into the boys a bit,” Miller said. “We didn’t need Walt yelling at us, we knew he was mad enough already, so the seniors kind of stepped in and did it for him.”
The ’Cats came out firing on all cylinders in the second period. Sophomore Justin Florek scored just 32 seconds in on an assist from junior Mark Olver, and senior Matt Butcher added a powerplay goal four minutes later.
History looked to be repeating itself later on, when Alaska closed to within a goal just four minutes into the third period.
Although yet another lead looked to be slipping away, senior Wildcat goaltender Brian Stewart wasn’t fazed.
“I wasn’t rattled, just shook it off. I wasn’t happy with the penalties. The guys got together and we rallied,” Stewart said. He finished the weekend series with 63 total saves.
Hanson sealed the game with six minutes remaining when he deflected a pass from Gron past Nanook goaltender Scott Greenham. Kyle was glad to see Hanson make the positive contribution to the game.
“Greger had taken a couple penalties in the third, and I told Greger, ‘You owe me,’” Kyle said. “He made a big-time play and beat (his defender) down the ice, and (Gron) fed him with a phenomenal pass.”
Hanson thought the goal seemed to break the Alaska squad’s spirit for good.
“That was probably really tough for them, to see that goal go in,” he said. “They actually played pretty good and had a few chances just before that, so that was probably real tough for them.”
After six more minutes of play and two empty net goals, the Wildcats skated out to celebrate their series win. Miller was pleased with the way the series played out.
“I think it was good for us, it was a good preparation for this weekend. I don’t think we played our best, but we did enough to get our job done,” he said. “I definitely think we progressed through the series, and I think we’re ready for this weekend.”
After the remainder of the quarterfinal matches were played, the Miami (of Ohio) Redhawks, Ferris State Bulldogs and Michigan Wolverines also earned a trip to Joe Louis Arena for the semifinals. Northern earned itself a No. 3 seed and will play the Bulldogs at 4:35 p.m. on Friday, March 19. The No. 1 Redhawks and No. 4 Wolverines will battle at 7:35 p.m.
The Wildcats traveled to Big Rapids, Mich. for the regular season series against the Bulldogs, and came away with a 2-2 tie and a 4-0 victory. Kyle knows that the rematch will be intense.
“We were fortunate, we had a win and a tie down there … but we were outshot considerably. They’re very good, and we’re going to have our hands full to get by them,” he said.
The upcoming weekend will be the third time the current senior class has been to the Joe, and the team ended up losing in the semifinals the previous two trips. Miller believes that the team has unfinished business that will be taken care of this year.
“I think this year’s a lot different than the other ones. I think the other ones, we were kind of the underdog, and we were just happy to be there. But this year’s different. We know what to expect, and it’s definitely going to be a good game,” he said.
After the series against Alaska, NMU sits ranked No. 12 in the nation and tied for 11th in the PairWise Rankings, which solidifies them as a contender for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. Miller said the team is focusing on the CCHA playoffs, though.
“We haven’t had (a conference title) in a while here, first thing’s first,” he said. “We have to take the first game, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to play in the championship.”
Follow the North Wind’s live blog coverage of the tournament at www.thenorthwindonline.com beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Friday.