Kyle hopes big ice equals big turnaround for Northern Michigan hockey team

MARQUETTE – Not only did the Northern Michigan University hockey team play 12 of its first 19 games this season away from the Berry Events Center, but every contest outside of Marquette came on a 200-by-85-foot NHL-sized ice sheet.

That’s about to change in the season’s second half.

The Wildcats will play their first 10 games of 2013 on 200-by-100-foot Olympic-sized rinks like the BEC, including four on the road starting at 8:37 p.m. Friday and 8:07 p.m. Saturday against No. 15 St. Cloud State at the National Hockey and Event Center in St. Cloud, Minn.

Northern, which won’t see an NHL-sized rink again until Feb. 12 at Michigan Tech, is 3-8-1 away from Marquette thus far. Two of those wins came on neutral ice in Green Bay against Wisconsin, which practices on a 200-by-90 sheet, yet plays on the 200-by-97 Kohl Center rink.

Kyle said this weekend’s nonconference series at St. Cloud will give him a chance to find out what’s the bigger issue – being on the road or playing on the smaller ice surface.

“The one thing I like right now is we’re going to see if this is part of the issue,” Kyle said. “We’re going to play our next 10 straight on Olympic ice, which we’ve been a better team at home. It’s certainly to a large degree because of our fans. I think part of that is we are more comfortable playing on a big sheet. We’ll see if that’s true or not.”

In his midseason grades, Kyle was especially harsh on his power play and penalty kill units, giving them an F after ranking among the NCAA’s worst on the penalty kill at 58th and power play at 50th among 59 Division I teams.

Kyle said if the team wants to turn around its 6-10-3 season, fixing the special teams is the easiest way to do it and the easiest way to fix the special teams will be to get them the extra 15 feet to work with in the zone.

At the BEC, NMU is converting on 18.5 percent of its power plays and killing 77.8 percent of opponents’ chances. On the road, NMU is scoring on 9.2 percent of its man-advantages while opponents are cashing in 26.8 percent of the time.

“Our special teams have not been very good and they’ve particularly not been good on the road,” Kyle said. “I think when you play in small rinks, your power play can be really affected by it.”

SCSU, which lost twice at NMU a year ago and is 9-3 at home this season, boasts a pair of special teams units that rank among the nation’s top 25.

Meanwhile, the Huskies take the fourth-least amount of penalties on average per game, while NMU takes the 10th most.

“I’m more concerned about our penalty killing than I am our power play,” Kyle said. “Obviously our power play is very important, but we felt going in we were going to be an offensively challenged team. We thought we were going to be a good defensive team and we have not been. Penalty killing is a big part of that.”

Drew LeBlanc leads SCSU in scoring and is sixth in the country with six goals and 22 assists. Nic Dowd has nine goals and 15 assists through 20 games while Kalle Kossila has 11 goals as a freshman.

St. Cloud, which sits atop the WCHA, also features Kingsford native Kevin Gravel, who as a junior defenseman has a goal and five assists with a plus-3 rating. A checking-from-behind call against Minnesota State-Mankato on Oct. 26 has helped propel Gravel to a team-high 21 penalty minutes with sophomore Jared Rabey on five calls each.

Junior Stephan Vigier (three goals, nine assists) and senior Matt Thurber (one goal, 11 assists) lead NMU in scoring with 12 points each while sophomore Ryan Daugherty has a team-high six goals.

“We’re glad to get the second half started. We’re disappointed in the first half of our season. We’re disappointed in where we are. When you go into Christmas break like that, the break is long. It’s not just long for me, but for all the guys. You’re always anxious to get going.”

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.