Northern Michigan looks to finish off season sweep of rival Michigan Tech

MARQUETTE – The Northern Michigan University hockey team has been far from stellar this season in CCHA play, totaling six wins, four ties and 12 losses with only six more regular season contests to go in the dying league’s history.

Against their nonconference foes from their future home in the WCHA, however, the Wildcats are a loss away from perfect having split with Nebraska-Omaha and swept Wisconsin and St. Cloud State.

All that remains now for the ‘Cats outside of CCHA play is a final meeting with the Michigan Tech Huskies at 7:07 p.m. tonight at the John MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton.

One of Northern’s six nonconference wins came against the Huskies on Dec. 4 in Marquette, 2-1, and while it’s important to NMU head coach Walt Kyle that his team finish 7-1 this season in non-league play, it’s more important for the former Wildcat captain to beat his current regional rivals, soon to be conference foes, from Houghton.

“It doesn’t have to be Tech,” Kyle said about wrapping up nonconference play. “It could be anybody else, but it is Tech. It is Tech so we have to do our job.

“Tech is a big game. You can shade it any way you want. We want to beat them. They want to beat us.”

In the first meeting, Northern, now at 12-13-4 overall, jumped out to a 2-0 lead on Tech through two periods via goals by junior defenseman C.J. Ludwig and junior forward Erik Higby, with assists by freshman forward Ryan Aynsley, junior forward Stephan Vigier on Ludwig’s first-period goal and freshman forward Darren Nowick on Higby’s score in the second.

Junior defenseman Brad Stebner scored the lone goal for Tech in the third period on the power play with assists by freshman defenseman Walker Hyland and freshman forward Malcolm Gould with 6:34 on the Berry Events Center clock.

The Tuesday night was capped by a pair of freshmen forwards from both sides – NMU’s Cohen Adair and Tech’s Alex Petan – scrapping near center ice, showing it doesn’t take long to get into the spirit of the rivalry.

Tech freshman netminder Jamie Phillips made 21 saves in his lone start of the season while NMU junior goaltender Jared Coreau stopped 25 Husky shots.

“I don’t think the Tech fans like me too much after we beat them (in Marquette),” Coreau said. “I went over to the glass and let them know what the score was.”

Both the Huskies (9-14-4 overall, 6-12-4 in WCHA) and Wildcats sit 10th in their respective leagues. Unlike Tech, though, the ‘Cats are still alive in the NCAA tournament picture, thanks to their non-league success and the success of their non-league foes.

Based on the formula used by the NCAA in its Ratings Percentage Index to calculate strength of schedule, no one in Division I has faced tougher competition than the Wildcats.

St. Cloud State (18-11-1 overall, 15-6-1 in WCHA) currently sits on top of the WCHA standings while the Badgers (12-9-7 overall, 9-6-7 in WCHA) have climbed all the way up to a tie for fifth in the league standings via a second-half surge. The Mavericks (16-12-2 overall, 12-8-2 in WCHA) are tied with Minnesota for third in the conference.

The result is a No. 25 ranking for the Wildcats in the RPI and more importantly, a No. 18 seed in the latest PairWise rankings.

NMU was the last team left out of the 2011-12 NCAA tournament field, finishing 16th in the PairWise.

“I know Walt is excited for this one,” NMU sophomore forward Mitch Jones said.

“We’re pushing through these last seven games. It will make a big difference and get us some comparisons in the PairWise.”

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