Hockey season ends at Bowling Green

Ray Bressette

For the third time in five seasons, the Wildcat hockey team was eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by the No. 9-ranked Bowling Green State University Falcons last weekend in Bowling Green, Ohio.

The early exit, which was the fifth straight opening-round elimination for the Wildcats, was the last game lacing up in the green and gold for five seniors, including defensemen Jake Baker, Mitch Jones and Luke Eibler and forwards Ryan Kesti, Reed Seckel and DJ Vandercook.

The ’Cats were swept in the best-of-three series by the Falcons, dropping the first game in overtime 3-2 Friday, March 13. NMU held a 1-0 and 2-1 lead in the match, with goals from sophomore forward Shane Sooth and Eibler. The ’Cats were 1:24 away from taking the opening game with their 2-1 lead when junior forward Mark Cooper scored the tying goal for Bowling Green 18:36 into the third period, sending the game into overtime.

Bowling Green freshman forward Tyler Spezia became the overtime hero for the Falcons with 28 seconds remaining in the first overtime, scoring the game-winning goal past NMU junior goaltender Michael Doan, giving the Falcons, who never led the entire game, the victory.

“I think Friday night we deserved to win the game,” sophomore forward Dominik Shine said. “But sometimes things just don’t go your way, and that’s the game of hockey. We went down there a couple weeks ago and swept them, and I think we went down there thinking it was going to happen again, and we laid back.”

Doan saved 49 of the 52 shots he faced in the loss, while Falcon junior goaltender Tommy Burke made 38 saves on 40 shots.

In the second game of the series the following evening, NMU opened the scoring once again 8:55 into the second period off a goal from freshman forward Zach Diamantoni, assisted by junior forward Darren Nowick and freshman forward Robbie Payne. The goal would be the last NMU would score on the season however, as the Falcons would go on to score three straight goals, two in the second period and one in the third period, to complete the sweep in a 4-1 win, advancing the Falcons to the WCHA Final Five next weekend and ending the Wildcats’ season.

“I thought we played really well in the series,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “You have to give Bowling Green credit, they’re a good hockey team. They earned a lucky bounce in their win Friday night which cost us, and Saturday night was only a one-goal game until the final eight minutes. We did what we had to do in the series, keeping their scoring down and playing well defensively, but our power play didn’t click. We’re not a high-scoring team, and we’ve known all season that if our power play was not effective, we weren’t going to win games.”

Doan made 38 saves on 42 shots in the final game of the year and finished the season with a .915 save percentage and a 2.98 goals-against average.

Doan started 17 games and saw action in 19 games. Starting goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom missed the final 14 games of the season after sustaining an injury against the University of Alaska-Anchorage Friday, Jan. 30. Dahlstrom recorded a .924 save percentage and a 2.18 goals-against average in the 21 games he started.

The Wildcats finished the season 11-13-4 in conference play, 14-18-6 overall and finished seventh out of the 10 teams in the WCHA.

Kyle said he had higher expectations for the season than the results that were reached.

“I was disappointed with the season,” Kyle said. “We knew a couple years ago that we had to make changes to get better. We made a real move toward that a year ago with our large recruiting class, and we wanted to see a real step of improvement this year.

“As a coaching staff, we’re much further along in the process than our record indicates. From a wins-and-losses perspective, I wasn’t happy with it. There are reasons for that, with devastating injuries to key personnel, and I think if we didn’t have those injuries, our record would show more improvement than what it did.”

Assistant coach Rob Lehtinen, who played for NMU from 2003-07 and served as the director of hockey operations at NMU from 2010-14 before his promotion to the coaching staff, said the ’Cats will continue running the systems in place to reach success in the future.

“I think our system definitely still works,” Lehtinen said. “I can tell you from playing under [Kyle] in past years that it does, and we’ve had some really good teams here in it. These are systems he used in the NHL, and are systems that teams in the NHL still use. Our record didn’t show how we really played this year, as it’s always tough to play around injuries.”

Sophomore defenseman Brock Maschmeyer was the ’Cats leading scorer on the season with nine goals, followed by Seckel who scored eight. Nowick led the team in points with 23, followed by Sooth with 21. Maschmeyer and Shine also earned 20 points each.

Shine said returning the Wildcats to their successful tradition is on everyone’s minds for next season.

“Our coaches have great influences on us,” Sooth said. “Next year has already started for everyone in the locker room, and everyone on the team is already training for next season.

“We have a great core group of guys in next year’s junior class, and we have to get used to winning and not laying back like we did this year, along with playing consistent, and we’re going to be successful.”