Northern Michigan penalty kill does a 180-degree turnaround just in time for Ferris State
MARQUETTE – As Northern Michigan University sophomore Mitch Jones sat on the bench during the 2012 portion of the season watching his teammates kill penalties, he was admittedly nervous.
No one could blame him either. One in every four power plays the Wildcats tried to kill off resulted in goals for the opposition.
January was a different story, however. Now the ‘Cats are killing at a rate of 89.2 percent and Jones is off the bench in the thick of the action.
For Jones, the NMU penalty kill is a source of pride.
“Me personally, I wasn’t killing a lot of penalties at the beginning of the year,” Jones said. “It was kind of a nervous feeling for me sitting on the bench when we get a penalty thinking, ‘Uh oh, here it comes again.’
“Now, I take pride in going out there from the first faceoff. I think that’s one of my strengths. I win that faceoff right away, it’s a good feeling.”
The Wildcats will need Jones on the faceoff and penalty kill at 7:35 p.m. on Friday and Saturday when current CCHA and future WCHA rival Ferris State visits the Berry Events Center.
The Bulldogs’ power play unit is ranked No. 1 in the CCHA, converting on 21.6 percent of its chances.
Ferris has scored a power play goal in six-straight games, though is winless in its last three games coming off a sweep of Michigan State in a home-and-home Jan. 18-19, a split at home against Notre Dame on Jan. 25-26 and a loss and tie at home to Western Michigan a week ago, though the Bulldogs won the shootout on Saturday against the Broncos.
“(Ferris) always has a good net presence,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “They have a real ability to get pucks to the net and some forwards who really understand where to be. They find loose pucks and rebounds really well.”
Northern, which still sits 10th in the CCHA in penalty killing at 79.2 percent for the season, is still taking a fair amount of penalties in 2013. In the five wins, two losses and a tie during January, NMU took went on the penalty kill 37 times. The ‘Cats gave up only four power play goals with one coming two weeks ago against Alaska in Fairbanks down two men.
Kyle vowed during the holiday break to make changes on special teams after giving both the power play and penalty units an F in his midseason grades.
On the penalty kill, Kyle has allowed his units to be more aggressive. He’s also gotten more players involved such as junior forward Erik Higby, freshman forward Darren Nowick and Jones, who has moved from defenseman to forward.
In addition, the Wildcats welcomed back a healthy Reed Seckel and Stephan Vigier while senior forward Matt Thurber served out the rest of his suspension for a violation of a team rule.
“We’re starting to pressure more so guys on the corner when they don’t have the puck, our D are jumping them right away,” NMU junior goaltender Jared Coreau said. “When there is a bit of a scrum, we’re more aggressive. That’s a big thing.”
NMU senior captain Scott Macaulay said he’s always in favor of a more aggressive style of play, especially when it speeds up the game.
It also helps to have good goaltending and Coreau has been as good as it gets, said Macaulay, who has two of the Wildcats’ three shorthanded goals this season.
“Jared has been rolling,” Macaulay said. “Your goaltender is your most important penalty killer. He’s been carrying us through the second half so far.”
While the NMU penalty kill has improved, the power play hasn’t.
In the first half of the season, NMU was converting on 12.3 percent of its power plays and for the season, NMU has been able to raise that percentage to 12.9.
In their last eight games, the ‘Cats have converted on 15 percent of their power plays, but that’s only three goals in 20 chances.
Northern just isn’t drawing enough power plays. The Wildcats had three total at St. Cloud State, a whopping eight against Miami, four against Ohio State and five in Fairbanks.
“It’s tough,” Macaulay said. “When you only have two chances in a weekend, you have a whole week before you get going again.”
Kyle said the ‘Cats lack of penalties is slightly due to bad luck, but NMU could also be doing more to create its own luck – or power play chances.
Northern needs to possess the puck longer and force the opposition to engage down low on those lengthy possessions. That’s how you tire an opposition out and even stress them out, forcing holds and hooks, according to Jones.
“We have to make teams come and check us,” Jones said. “That’s where you draw penalties. Get guys tired. Get guys chasing you. Even if you aren’t getting scoring chances, they’re going to have to take penalties if you are grinding on them.”
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens