Playoffs begin at Ferris for Wildcat hockey team

Ray Bressette

After an inability to take care of play at home, the Wildcats will hit the road for the opening round of the WCHA playoffs this weekend against the Ferris State Bulldogs in Big Rapids.

The Wildcats battled Ferris in their house last month, and NMU head coach Walt Kyle said it can play to their advantage.re-Hockey_ET

“We were fortunate to be there four weeks ago, and our guys know what to expect in their building and their style of play,” Kyle said. “They are still fairly fresh in our minds. I’m sure Ferris will have some tweaks to their game, but at this point of the year it’s all about making sure you have your best players on the ice and taking care of business.”

The two teams have been neck-and-neck for the fourth seed of the conference the past few weeks, knowing whoever came out on top would host the other team as the fifth seed to start the playoffs.

NMU found themselves one-win away from clinching home ice last Saturday when hosting the Michigan Tech Huskies, but their U.P. rival got the best of them in a 5-1 match to complete a weekend sweep and win the WCHA’s regular season championship, the MacNaughton Cup.

The Wildcats get ready for a new ’Dog this weekend in their third and final series with Ferris this season. The winner in the best-of-three series will be one of the four teams advancing to the WCHA Final Five next week in Grand Rapids. Puck Drop is scheduled for 7:07 p.m. on Friday, March 12 through Sunday, March 14.

The playoff matchup will break a series tie, as both teams have split series in each other’s barns.

Both teams earned a win at the Berry Events Center in Marquette during the foes’ first matchup in December.

NMU saw success at Ferris’ Ewigleben Arena last month, following a 5-1 loss on Feb. 12, with a 3-2 win on Feb. 13. The Bulldogs jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in the match, but the Wildcats responded with three straight goals to steal the game and tie the series.

The Bulldogs are 7-5-5 on their own ice this season, while the ’Cats are 4-9-4 on the road.

Ferris plays on a smaller ice than NMU’s olympic-size ice, and the Wildcats have been practicing at Lakeview Arena this weekend to prepare opposed to the Berry.

Kyle said Ferris brings a challenging physicality to their opponents.

“They’re going to play hard and come at your forechecking hard,” Kyle said. “Their building is a small surface that lends itself to that game. They shoot a ton of pucks from all over with guys going on net, and you have to manage play in your own zone as well.”

Ferris carries the WCHA’s third-leading scoring offense, led by the junior forward Gerald Mayhew, whose 11 goals and 20 assists combined for the conference’s second-best points with 31.

The Bulldogs’ freshman goalie Darren Smith has posted a 2.24 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage in his first season between the pipes.

The Wildcats’ junior forward Dominik Shine finished the regular season as the ’Cats’ leading scorer with 14 goals and 15 assists, combining for 29 points, which was just shy of senior forward Darren Nowick’s team-leading 30-points.

After missing significant time to start the season, senior goalie Mathias Dahlstrom has gotten the nod as the team starter the last few weeks. Dahlstrom led all Wildcat goalies with a 2.37 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage.

However, there is no guarantee Dahlstrom will start for the ’Cats in the win-or-go-home series this weekend. After the two tough losses to Tech last weekend, Kyle confirmed Tuesday that he has decided who will be in net, if it will be Dahlstrom or one of the freshmen goalies, Atte Tolvanen or Mathias Israelsson, but he’s waiting until puck drop to reveal.

NMU is looking to win their first playoff series in six years, and their first since re-joining the WCHA. The Wildcats have been on the road for the opening playoff round for the fourth straight season. Given the ’Cats’ playoff woes, Shine said they are confident they can reach Grand Rapids next weekend.

“Our mentality changes as you put the season behind you, but it’s a three-game season now,” Shine said. “We need to concentrate on Ferris to win. Everyone’s on a clean slate whether you’re the third place team or the eighth place team, and all it takes is two wins to get into the tournament.”