Northern Michigan hockey still hopeful for home ice taking on Lake Superior State

MARQUETTE – The final regular season weekend in the history of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association has provided plenty of story lines for the Northern Michigan University hockey program before it departs with four other league rivals for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

First, five seniors and possibly one junior goaltender could be playing their final games at the Berry Events Center.

Unless – secondly – the Wildcats can gain at least five league points in a 7:35 p.m. Friday and Saturday series against Lake Superior State in Marquette, plus get some help from Ferris State against Michigan or Notre Dame against Bowling Green.

Third on the list of story lines for the ‘Cats is revenge for an embarrassing performance Dec. 14-15 in Sault Ste. Marie that closed out of the 2012 portion of their schedule.

Of those three tales, senior forward Matt Thurber is choosing door No. 2, because, if the Wildcats get that, they get all three.

“If you look at our season throughout the entire year, we’ve clearly been better on our home ice or on an Olympic sheet,” Thurber said.

“Winning these two games this weekend is going to give us an opportunity to get back here for the first round of the playoffs.

That has been our goal for the past six games – make sure we find a way to get home ice advantage in the first round,” he added.

Northern currently sits 10th in the CCHA standings with 29 points and a 20 percent chance of playing at the BEC from March 8-10.

To pass the eighth-place Lakers, who are three points ahead, NMU will need five points or two wins. One victory may come in a shootout, but not both.

In addition, NMU will need either seventh-place BGSU or ninth-place Michigan to falter.

The Wildcats can only jump Bowling Green with a clean six-point sweep of the Lakers and an Irish sweep of the Falcons in South Bend.

As for overtaking Michigan, NMU needs to accumulate three more league points than the Wolverines.

While Thurber is keeping his hopes up about another weekend of hockey in Marquette, NMU head coach Walt Kyle said it’s not the end of the world if the ‘Cats hit the road for the entirety of the final CCHA tournament.

It’s not like home ice has worked well for Northern each of the past two season after last-place BGSU won a pair of three-game series on the Wildcats’ home ice.

“You can’t worry about stuff you don’t control right now,” Kyle said. “We control our performance and we control our quality of play. We need to keep that moving forward.

“I’d like to see us keep going up and go where it doesn’t matter where we are playing. Early in the year, we couldn’t win on the road. Now we’re doing pretty well on the road.”

NMU has gone 7-3-3 at home in 2012-13 and 5-13-1 on the road. The only two league road wins came each of the past two weeks at Bowling Green and Michigan State.

NMU junior goaltender Jared Coreau said the 5-2 win – and even the 5-3 loss at Bowling Green – was the perfect preparation for Games 3 and 4 against the rival Lakers.

“Bowling Green was the best way to prepare for Lake State,” said Coreau, who is expected to forgo his senior season and turn pro this spring.

“They were physical and we battled really hard down there. I hope its going to lead into this weekend’s series.”

Kyle, Coreau and Thurber all called the first meeting with LSSU the low point of Northern’s season.

The ‘Cats lost twice at Taffey Abel Arena on Dec. 14-15, 3-0 and 3-1, were outshot a combined 73-52, gave up four power play goals on 10 LSSU chances and Coreau got benched in the second period of Friday’s defeat after giving up three goals on 18 LSSU shots.

It was the culmination of a first half that saw NMU score four or fewer goals in six out of nine weekend series. In three of those weekends, NMU scored two goals or less.

“We didn’t show up for either game at Lake State,” said Thurber, who was in the stands for Saturday’s game. “It was a tough weekend. We had guys hurt.

“I’m not making excuses. We just flat out didn’t show up to play and that’s not who our team is. That’s not what we want to be known as.”

The Wildcats, specifically their offense, have been anything but the team that struggled to score in the first half.

Since the series in the Sault, Northern has scored five or more goals in five out of seven weekends, with 7-8 goals being posted in four of those series.

In the first nine weekends of 2012-13, NMU only had two six-goal weekends and an eight-goal series against a Michigan team that is still struggling in net.

Since Christmas, NMU is 6-1-1 when scoring three or more goals and 2-5-0 when scoring two or fewer in a game.

Those numbers are why Kyle is taking zero from the first two meeting with LSSU and more from the split at Bowling Green, where NMU scored four power play goals while giving up only two.

“We have four lines going right now,” Thurber said. “We have lines that are putting up good numbers and scoring points for us.

“Our power play has been scoring, which is something that has been missing in our game all year.”

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens