NMU Hockey 2012-13 Season Wrap-up: Wildcats’ struggles on special teams lead to forgettable final season in CCHA
MARQUETTE – Northern Michigan University senior forward and leading scorer Matt Thurber called it “embarrassing.”
Wildcats’ head coach Walt Kyle thought for sure it was a “world record.”
Both were used during a postgame press conference on March 2 inside the Berry Events Center to describe NMU’s problem of giving up shorthanded goals, with Thurber’s assessment being more accurate than that of his coach.
The Wildcats had given up three shorties the night of those comments in a 3-0 loss to Lake Superior State in the regular season finale.
Those three shorthanded goals allowed not only spoiled Senior Night and cost the ‘Cats home ice in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, but they were a microcosm of a season that proved to be nothing special, only forgettable.
“I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say I was really disappointed,” Kyle said just over 38 hours after his 11th season as NMU head coach ended via a 6-2 loss and first-round sweep by Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“I think that we thought we had a pretty strong year a year ago. We were 16th in the country. We felt like we were in a good spot.
“I didn’t think we’d be where we were.”
Where the Wildcats ended up was 10th out of 11 teams in the final season of the 42-year-old CCHA, with a 9-15-4 league record for 32 points. NMU finished 6-2 in non-conference play against the current members of its home starting in 2013-14 – the WCHA – to wind up 15-19-4 overall.
The 15 wins are tied with the 2010-11 and 2006-07 seasons for the fewest by Kyle in a season, while the .447 winning percentage is only better than the .390 Kyle posted in 05-06.
Those troubling results are in part because Northern only finished plus-seven on the man advantage this season, after scoring the least amount of power-play goals ever during the Walt Kyle-era (20) and giving up the most shorthanded goals ever in the past 11 seasons (13).
“We were having such difficultly scoring on the power play, that we had guys trying to make high-risk plays holding pucks in, diving down for rebounds. The reality is, that’s not the way it works and that’s not what you need to do,” Kyle said. “That’s something we’re very aware of. We should have been better through the course of the year.”
Since the 2000-01 season, only two other teams gave up 13 shorthanded goals in a season – Western Michigan in 2006-07 and Michigan Tech in 2001-02 – while Bowling Green State in 2005-06 and Alaska-Anchorage in 2009-10 both gave up 14 shorties.
Northern gave up six shorthanded goals in five of its final eight games, including the playoffs.
Three of the six goals proved costly, with shorties preventing NMU from taking BGSU and Michigan State into overtime on the road. The 13th shorty allowed proved to be the game-winner for Michigan in Game 1 of the CCHA first-round playoff series.
The 13 shorthanded goals allowed weren’t quite the world recored Kyle predicted, it was still an embarrassing statistic for Northern, especially considering the timing of the goals given up.
“We were thinking about it too much,” NMU sophomore Reed Seckel said about the Wildcats’ power play this year. “‘Oh crap, it’s a power play!’ Go out there and take advantage of it and act like it’s five-on-five.
“Take advantage of it and not think so much. Worry about what you’re doing and what’s in front of you on the power play and things will fall into place.”
Had the Wildcats taken Seckel’s advice and played every shift as if it was five-on-five, their final season in the CCHA may have turned out much different.
The ‘Cats were outscored 109-90 this season after outscoring opponents the year before, 106-102. However, take away the 20 power play scores and 36 allowed; three shorthanded scores and 13 allowed; three empty net scores and six allowed; plus two extra attacker goals allowed and the one penalty shot Michigan scored on during the playoffs, Northern outscored its opponents, beating them five-on-five, 64-52.
In six games this season, special teams cost NMU at least a tie. On three other occasions, special teams cost the ‘Cats a victory.
Only two wins were a result of special teams goals.
“Five-on-five, you can mask things, you can mask some weaknesses,” Kyle said. “When you start getting a man short on the penalty kill, it’s hard to mask weaknesses.
“When you lack goal scoring and get on the power play, it becomes difficult to create.”
NMU junior forward Stephan Vigier led the Wildcats in power play goals with four. Sophomore forward Ryan Daugherty, junior forward Erik Higby and senior forward Matt Thurber had three.
Only four power play goals came from the point, with junior defenseman C.J. Ludwig scoring twice. Sophomore defenseman/forward Mitch Jones and senior defenseman Scott Macaulay each had one.
Kyle said he knew NMU lacked a true quarterback for the power play going into the season. Despite dedicating a lot of time to the effort, never found one.
“You have to have a threat at the blue line. Once you have established that, then I think some other things can happen,” Kyle said.
“Both special teams will be a big point of emphasis this offseason.”
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens