Hockey team’s fights for home ice continues hosting ’Bama

Ray Bressette

With three weeks remaining in the WCHA regular season, NMU has three series to catch the Ferris State Bulldogs for the fourth seed in the conference, the lowest seed that will host the first round of playoff hockey in March.

The final weeks pick up this weekend hosting the last-place Alabama-Huntsville Chargers at the Berry Events Center.

NMU head coach Walt Kyle said his focus is improving each day as opposed to playoff watching.

“We’re not changing the message much,” Kyle said. “We try to get better every night. We continue to sing that song to the guys. We have 16 practices left, and we want to grow every day. We have to refine our game and get better at the little details while winning games along the way.”

NMU split their series at Ferris last weekend, getting out-skated 5-1 on Feb. 12 in the opener in Big Rapids. The following evening, the ’Cats found themselves in a 2-0 hole midway through the second period before scoring three straight, including a senior forward Darren Nowick goal in the final minutes of the game to grind out the comeback win.

Both teams earned a pair of points for the conference standings, keeping Ferris in fourth place with 28 points, while NMU sits two games back at 24 points.

“Any time you win in Ferris is a big step for us,” NMU assistant coach Rob Lehtinen said. “It’s not easy going into that building and getting a win. We were expecting at least one win, and when we went down 2-0 Saturday, we made some adjustments. [Kyle] did a good job with his scout video Friday night, and the adjustments paid off.”

The Wildcats have the advantage of two more conference games remaining on their schedule than Ferris, giving them control of their fate to tie or pass them for the fourth seed and host playoff hockey at the Berry in March. If they stick in fifth place or drop lower, they will hit the road in the playoffs.

NMU could not face a team lower in the WCHA than this weekend to try to gain conference points, when the last-place Alabama-Huntsville Chargers stampede to the Berry Events Center.

Alabama is looking to get out of the cellar of the conference and back in the playoff picture, as their 6-17-5 record sits amongst the worst

in college hockey. The Chargers still have much to play for this weekend, as they sit just three points behind Alaska-Anchorage, who are eighth in the conference and hold the last playoff seed.

The Chargers have won one of their last six games and are 3-8-1 in road play. When NMU played the Chargers in Alabama  in December, NMU took three of a possible four points in the heart of Dixie, earning a 4-3 win on Dec. 4 but were unable to finish the sweep the following evening, skating to a 1-1 tie.

Junior goalie Matt Larose was in the Alabama net in NMU’s Dec. 4 win, when Larose allowed four goals on 22 shots. Since then, he has improved his stats to a .931 save percentage and a 2.24 goals against average. Larose has started 12 of his team’s 28 games, and five straight.

“[Larose] is a good goalie,” Kyle said. “He’s a big kid and a good athlete. You can’t relax around the net with him, or he can make a big save, and he’s also playing solid stopping the pucks he should. They’re more than goaltending this year, with some dynamic forwards that can get up and go. We have to be aware of everything we do.”

NMU is skating with an 86.4 penalty kill percentage, ranked amongst the top of the league. They also carry a 16.5 powerplay percentage. Kyle said their special teams will need to step up with consistency if they are going to succeed in the playoffs.

Lehtinen said Alabama puts their bodies on the line to keep their offense in games.

“They do a good job of fronting pucks,” Lehtinen said. “They collapse in front of their net, so when you’re shooting through their guys, it’s through two or three screens. Their forwards and defense do a good job blocking shots, so sometimes they don’t get to the goalie.

“We have to shoot the puck and get to the net looking for second and third chances. They might not be the prettiest goals, but we need to get around the net and get the greasy goals.”