Thurber, Seckel find missing piece in Higby to bolster Northern Michigan’s top line

MARQUETTE – The Northern Michigan University hockey team has found itself reeling on a number of occasions this season against some of the CCHA’s top forward lines.

In November, it was Michigan’s Phil Di Giuseppe, A.J. Treais and Luke Moffatt keeping the Wildcats on their toes at the Berry Events Center.

Last weekend in Marquette, the ‘Cats were constantly matching up against Miami’s powerful trio of Curtis McKenzie, Austin Czarnik and Team USA World Juniors gold medalist Riley Barber.

Meanwhile, NMU has finally been able to field it’s own dangerous threesome in Reed Seckel, Matt Thurber and Erik Higby.

While those names don’t exactly strike fear into opponents like the Wolverines’ or RedHawks’ trios, Northern’s top forward line is creating just enough offense in 2013 to make teams think twice about who to throw out on the ice when Nos. 9, 12 and 26 come off the NMU bench.

“They’re all fairly intelligent guys,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “They have been able to make some plays and score some goals. That’s good we’ve found a line there that can by dynamic and contribute five-on-five.”

Since coming back from the holiday break, Seckel, Thurber and Higby have combined for four goals and 12 assists in a three victories and a tie heading into a pair of 7:35 p.m. league contests on Friday and Saturday against Ohio State in Marquette.

Earlier in the year, NMU was swept by the Buckeyes in Columbus, 2-0 and 4-2, via a goal and assist by Max McCormick, three assists by Tanner Fritz and a lone goal by Alex Szczechura – which makes up the Buckeyes’ current top line.

Backstopping McCormick, Fritz and Szczechura is senior goaltender Brady Hjelle, whose 1.44 goals against average ranks second in the nation. His .953 save percentage is second.

“They handed it to us there,” Kyle said about getting swept in November.

“We remember what happened to us down there. We know that they were very good and we weren’t very good. It’s a real test for us.”

NMU was held to two goals and 34 total shots on goal over the two games in Columbus. But the play of Seckel, Thurber and Higby has helped put that in the past.

Three of the four goals from the Wildcats’ top line since Jan. 1 have come from Seckel, a third-year sophomore. He also has two assists.

Higby, a junior, has the other goal plus four assists while Thurber, a senior, has six assists since the holidays to lead the team in points with 18.

Thurber said the addition of the offensive-minded Higby has helped take he and Seckel’s line to the next level.

“We’ve been able to make plays instead of having to dump pucks in,” Thurber said. “We’ve been able to take those chances on offensive rushes where we always know we’ll get someone back to make plays happen to get some goals.”

Thurber and Seckel played most of last season together alongside departed senior Tyler Gron. The two opened the 2012-13 campaign in Green Bay against Wisconsin together again, but with senior Kory Kaunisto.

That only lasted a night as Seckel missed the second game of the series due to an injury.

Thurber and Seckel reunited for a two-game stretch against Nebraska-Omaha and Notre Dame, this time with freshman Ryan Aynsley filling out the forward line.

Kyle broke that up following a 5-2 loss to the Irish.

Then, a combination of suspensions incurred by Thurber and injuries to Seckel kept the pair apart again until after the holiday break.

In their reunion on Jan. 4 and debut with Higby, Seckel posted two goals. Higby and Thurber each added three assists.

“Thurber, we do have a little something,” Seckel said.

“We see the ice together. It’s nice knowing I have somebody who knows what I’m doing and I know what he’s doing.

“Higby is a great add on to the line, too, with his speed, his shot, his mind. Us three work together good.”

Higby seemed to have early chemistry centering a line with freshmen Cohen Adair and Justin Rose to start the season. But that line, too, was broken up during the Wildcats’ run of injuries and suspensions.

Now paired with Thurber and Seckel, Higby finds himself as a wing, which he said has been an adjustment, especially in the defensive zone.

“They moved me from center to wing, which is a big difference,” said Higby, who only had two goals and four assists in his first 19 games of 2012-13. “I’m still getting used to that.

“I think just playing with two older guys is kind of easier. They know where to be, what to expect and things have clicked right away.”

While Higby appears to be the missing piece of the Seckel-Thurber line, Kyle is still searching for someone to complement his other scoring duo of junior Stephan Vigier and sophomore Ryan Daugherty.

Vigier and Daugherty, who have combined for 12 goals and 13 assists, have played together in all 23 games this season.

After working with another departed senior in Marquette native Justin Florek, they’ve been matched with seven different teammates this season, led by Seckel’s seven games toward the end of 2012.

“We need to find the answer to Vigier and Daugherty to get them going five-on-five,” Kyle said. “Their numbers are good on the power play, and not so good five-on-five so we’re looking to find one more piece there.”

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