As close as the Wildcats came last weekend to wrapping up a first round bye for the Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament, they came away satisfied from their series against University of Michigan (18-16-1 overall, 13-12-1 CCHA).
The ’Cats earned a road split against the host Wolverines, winning 3-1 on Friday, Feb. 19 and losing a 5-4 showdown on Saturday, Feb. 20. The defeat ended a seven-game unbeaten streak that stretched back to Jan. 29.
“I thought it was a great weekend,” said head coach Walt Kyle. “We’re still fighting in a spot to get a bye. It’s not the end of the world, but you’ve got to keep going.”
Nearly all of the scoring on Friday night came in the first period. Junior forward Greger Hanson and senior Phil Fox started things off for the Wildcats. Junior Jared Brown assisted on both and added an empty net goal in the waning moments of the third period, and NMU held on to win 3-1.
“We played, I would say, a real good road game with the kind of a road mentality that you need to play against a real good team in a difficult environment,” Kyle said. “I was real pleased with our patience. It’s hard to hold a one-goal lead for two periods.”
The patient defense of the Wildcats was supported once again by an outstanding performance by senior goaltender Brian Stewart, who stopped 38 Wolverine shots en route to his 13th win of the season. U of M outshot the ’Cats 39-21 in the game.
Saturday’s game was much closer in terms of offense, with the Wolverines outshooting the Wildcats 32-27. NMU took a 4-3 lead with 15 minutes remaining in the game, but a pair of Wolverine goals just one minute apart sealed NMU’s fate. It was the second time that night that U of M scored on back-to-back shifts. The first time, the Wolverine goals came just 10 seconds apart.
“I was not happy with that, I thought that again, that’s an area we have to be real cognizant of,” Kyle said. “We can’t give goals on follow-up shifts or shifts immediately after goals, and we did it twice that night.”
Stewart said it is very hard to battle back after consecutive goals that many times in one game.
“You don’t want it to happen,” Stewart said. “If it happens once, it’s not a good game. But twice, you’re not going to win too many games like that.”
Brown added another goal in Saturday’s game, giving him four total points on the weekend. After a slow start to the season, Kyle is pleased to see Brown find the scoreboard more.
“What we’ve found with Brown over his career, is he has great second halfs. We’d like to come a little earlier next year, but he’s doing a great job for us right now,” Kyle said.
Brown feels that he just needed to get back in a rhythm this year.
“I kind of always pick it up at the end of the year, so maybe it’s just getting a couple good bounces,” Brown said. “Pucks are going in finally, I’m figuring things out.”
Brown is now sitting sixth on the team in total points, with 21 points including nine goals to his credit.
The Wildcats (now 15-11-8 overall, 11-9-6-3 CCHA) will close out regular season conference play this weekend when they host the Lake Superior State University Lakers (15-14-5 overall, 10-13-3-2 CCHA).
The Lakers, who are coming off a road sweep at the hands of the Alaska Nanooks, dominated the first meeting with NMU when they met in December. The ’Cats were outscored 11-4 in the affair.
“Lake State didn’t just beat us when we played them earlier, they beat us good,” Kyle said. “They outplayed us. I didn’t think we showed up and gave them the kind of game we needed to.”
Stewart was chased from the crease both games the first time around, and hopes to exact some revenge when they Lakers come to visit.
“We want revenge for sure, for how we played there,” he said. “We let them dominate us. We know what it’s going to be like, it’s going to be one hell of a tough week.”
Should the Wildcats sweep the series and earn all six conference points, they will secure fourth place in the CCHA and earn a first-round bye in the postseason tournament.
Although the extra wins afforded by an extra playoff series could help the Wildcats’ national standings, Kyle said the team is not going to back off the throttle.
“We want to always finish as high as we can, and do the best we can do,” he said.
According to Brown, the ’Cats are prepared to battle for the six points available this weekend.
“We just want to bring our best game and they’re going to bring our best game,” Brown said. “It’s going to be who gets the breaks and who works a little harder.”
The puck will drop on Friday, Feb. 26 and Saturday, Feb. 27 at 7:35 p.m. in the Berry.