Following a split against Lake Superior State, the Northern Michigan University hockey team hit the road to play against the University of Michigan, losing two games and concluding their final series in the CCHA in the first round of playoffs.
The No. 10 seed Wildcats traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich. to play the No. 7 seed Wolverines on Friday, March 9 and Saturday, March 10, ending their final games in the CCHA. The ’Cats have been a part of the CCHA for a collective 31 years, first joining during the 1977-78 academic year and rejoining in 1997-98 after switching to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) in 1984.
NMU head coach Walt Kyle said the team played hard on Friday, but the Wolverines regrouped on Saturday to take the series.
“The last two periods on Friday really woke Michigan up,” Kyle said. “They came at us full-throttle from the minute the second game started. They took us somewhere we couldn’t follow, so the best team certainly won the series with the way they were playing.”
On Friday, March 9, the Wildcats ended the first night against the Wolverines with a final score of 3-2. On Saturday, March 10, the Wolverines concluded the series with a victory of 6-2. The weekend had been set to be a best-out-of-three series, which concluded after U of M swept the first two games of the match-up. NMU finished the weekend with an overall record of 15-19-4.
The ’Cats opened the playoff weekend on Friday behind their competition after the Wolverines scored three goals in the first period. Michigan tallied their first goal when junior defenseman Jon Merril, a draftee for the New Jersey Devils of the NHL, scored during a power play at 6:39 into the game. Senior forward Kevin Lynch, draftee for the Columbus Blue Jackets, scored the next two goals to finish the first, bringing the score to 3-0.
“I thought, Friday night, that we came out really early and really nervous, Kyle said. “It really wasn’t a ‘three-nothing game’. It was due to the early mistakes that we made that made it that way. To the guys credit, they came back after that and played extremely well during the last two periods. We put ourselves right back into the game with ample opportunities to tie it, which is kind of a microcosm to our season, in regards of offense.”
Senior forward Matt Thurber was unable to play during the playoff series against Michigan, as he broke his leg during a practice session during the week prior to the match-up. Kyle said the missing man in the lineup caused a difference in the quality of play.
“That was absolutely a factor in the way we played,” Kyle said. “[Sophomore forward Reed] Seckel and [senior defenseman Erik] Higby were not as effective without him in their line. We can’t win a playoff series without a goal from your top seven or eight guys, so playing without him was a factor.”
The Wildcats made it to the scoreboard 4:57 into the second period when senior forward Kory Kaunisto tallied his fifth goal of the season. Kaunisto’s shot was assisted by junior defenseman Wade Epp and junior forward Jake Johnson.
Freshman forward Darren Nowick contributed the next goal for the ’Cats, marking his sixth of the season and bringing the score to 3-2 with four minutes left in the third period. Junior forward Stephan Vigier and sophomore forward Ryan Daugherty earned assists for Nowick’s shot.
Between the posts, junior goalie Jared Coreau saved 22 shots in the crease while Wolverine freshman goalie Steve Racine tallied 26 saves. Michigan was outshot 28-25 by the Wildcats.
Following the end of the postseason series for the Wildcats, Coreau was also named NMU’s January Scholar of the Month.
On Saturday, March 10, the Wildcats fell 6-2 in their final game of the 2012-13 season. Michigan started the game’s scoring for the second night in a row during the first period, with sophomore forward and Dallas Stars draftee Alex Guptill tallying a goal 4:02 into the game. Freshman defenseman and Winnipeg Jets draftee Jacob Trouba scored at 15:05 into the first, bringing the score to 2-0.
Nowick scored the first goal for the Wildcats again with only 40 seconds left in the first, bringing the game to 2-1 going into the second. His seventh goal of the season went unassisted.
Michigan finished off the period’s scoring with two more goals past Coreau, with junior defenseman and Montreal Canadiens draftee Mac Bennett earning a power play goal at 6:06. Freshman forward Andrew Copp contributed the second goal with 2:35 left in the second, bringing the score to 4-1 going into the third.
Copp went on to score one of the last Michigan goals during the third period alongside junior forward and Colorado Avalanche draftee Luke Moffatt.
Senior defenseman Kyle Follmer buried the final goal for the Wildcats with only 1:06 left in the game, bringing the final score to 6-2. Follmer’s shot was assisted by freshman forward Justin Rose.
Follmer said Saturday did not reflect the way the team played on the previous night, as well as it did not go the way they had expected it after the LSSU weekend.
“We felt like we had out-played them during the last two periods of Friday’s game,” Follmer said. “We felt pretty confident going down to Michigan, too. We had met them and tied earlier in the year, and we knew we could beat them.”
Coreau finished the game with 40 saves in the Wildcat crease. For the Wolverines, Racine finished with 18 saves between the posts. Coreau said going into the WCHA next season, the team is keeping their heads up as they move forward.
“We have an excellent chance every year, consistently, to be top-three, in my opinion,” Coreau said. “Northern is going into a revamped league that is an even playing field. It is exciting for us, and it will be interesting to see how we do.”
Before NMU’s spring break, the Wildcats split their weekend against the LSSU Lakers, defeating them with a score of 3-1 on Friday, March 1 and losing 3-0 on Saturday, March 2. Kyle said the start to the series against the Lakers was a promising one, offensively, but the team was lacking in other areas.
“In the end, we gave up 50 shots tonight, so I was disappointed with the quality of play there,” Kyle said. “You have to be better than that, defensively, especially going into the playoffs. Having said that, I thought, offensively, we did some really good things. I was happy with our offensive opportunities but wasn’t happy with our quality of play.”
During Friday’s game against LSSU, the Wildcats started the game with a 3-0 lead going into the third period. Seckel opened the scoring in the first period, assisted by senior defenseman Scott Macaulay and Higby.
Higby brought the game to 2-0 with a goal during a power play 1:59 into the second. Follmer and Seckel assisted the shot.
Thurber earned the final Wildcat goal with three minutes left in the third, assisted by Follmer and Seckel.
Macaulay said the split against the Lakers should have prepared the team to bring their best quality of play to the ice down in Ann Arbor.
“It kind of shows you how quickly something can come to an end,” Macaulay said. “In a best-of-three series, you do not show up one night and get behind the eight-ball just to fight for your life the next night. It was a tough way to go out.”
The Lakers scored one goal in the third to keep the ’Cats from earning a second-season shutout.
Coreau was named the CCHA Warrior Goaltender of the Week following the series against the Lakers, as he stopped a collective 84 shots throughout the weekend.
Coreau said it was an honor in lieu of ending the season earlier than expected.
“I was pretty happy to be the regular-season goalie of the week, so I looked at it in terms of that, at least,” Coreau said. “I feel honored to be recognized for both the Warrior and January Scholar award, but that doesn’t mean I am necessarily better than anyone else.”
The conclusion of the season marks the end of five collegiate careers for members of the Wildcat hockey team. Follmer, Macaulay, Thurber, Kaunisto and senior forward Brian Nugent will all be graduating at the end of this academic year.
“The loss on the road was a tough way to go out,” Macaulay said. “It has been a quick four years. This is a winning team and a winning tradition around here, and I know the guys will find the way to get back to it next year.”
Kaunisto was also nominated as NMU’s 2012-13 CCHA Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
The Scholar-Athlete of the Year title will be given to one of 11 chosen athletes from the other teams in the conference on Friday, March 22 at the 2013 CCHA Awards.
Next time the Wildcats hit the ice, the team will be competing in the WCHA. NMU’s first series in their new conference places them against Michigan Tech on Friday, Oct. 25 and Saturday, Oct. 26 next fall.
“I want to wish all of the guys next year good luck,” Follmer said. “Our fans and the community have been so great. I’ve played in a lot of rinks, and [NMU] is one my favorite places to play hockey, and we’ve had a lot of great people supporting us the entire way.”