Wildcats unable to dig out of early hole

ANN ARBOR – When Northern Michigan University hockey players learned they would travel to Ann Arbor for the opening round of the CCHA Tournament, several Wildcats expressed excitement about playing at Yost Ice Arena.

That’s because the University of Michigan’s home boasts one of the best atmospheres in the league. But perhaps the crowd played too much into U of M’s favor as the Wolverines stymied a comeback to beat NMU 3-2 on Friday night.

The Wildcats fell into a three-goal hole during the first period even though they opened the contest by applying early pressure on Michigan goaltender Steve Racine. The freshman was up to the challenge with the Wolverines responding immediately.

Less than seven minutes in, Michigan got on the board with a power-play tally. Then after NMU was whistled for having too many men on the ice, a slapshot by Michigan junior defenseman Jon Merrill appeared to deflect off a Wildcat defender as it trickled into the net.

The Wolverines continued to pepper NMU, which struggled to keep the puck out of its zone in the opening period. The Wildcats conceded a second power-play goal when senior forward Kevin Lynch poked in a loose puck in the crease after an AJ Treais slapshot.

And the forward struck again moments later as NMU’s woes on special teams continued. With the Wildcats a man up, Lynch stole the puck from Wildcat senior defender CJ Ludwig. Lynch’s deke left goaltender Jared Coreau sprawled on the ice, and the senior lifted the puck over the netminder’s legs for his second goal in less than five minutes.

The Wildcats played without senior center Matt Thurber, their leading scorer, after he suffered a broken leg during practice this week, ending his collegiate career.

But NMU coach Walt Kyle insisted that his team’s slow start was due to the difficult environment.

“We were nervous in the first (period),” Kyle said. “We made some really bonehead plays.”

Northern began to show signs of life in the second period. First, it killed off a power play. Then, it earned one of its own. Finally, the puck went into the net for the Wildcats. Five minutes into the middle frame, senior forward Kory Kaunisto deflected in a high wrist shot by junior Wade Epp to cut the deficit to two.

“It was a real momentum boost after that first period,” Kaunisto said. “We needed a boost. After that goal, I felt it could have gone either way.”

Yost quieted once again after NMU freshman Darren Nowick somehow poked a short rebound past Racine. The forward stopped on a dime in front of the keeper, spinning as he elevated the puck into the twine and pulled the Wildcats to within a shot of tying the game. As the teams skated off the ice before a silent crowd for the second intermission, Nowick felt he had accomplished exactly what his team had set to do.

“In the second period, we came out strong,” Nowick said. “That’s when we silenced the crowd and started doing what we do.”

The three-goal deficit after the opening 20 minutes ultimately proved too much for the Wildcats, who were rejected time and again in the third period by Racine. But the near-comeback gives the Wildcats plenty of confidence for the second game of the best-of-three series tonight.

“We didn’t come back far enough,” Kyle said. “We felt we played really, really well after the first period. … If we play like that the rest of the way, we’ll see what happens.”