NMU hockey: Wildcats look to continue their success in Wisconsin against Badgers

MARQUETTE – The Northern Michigan University hockey team has made itself at home in the state of Wisconsin recently, specifically at the expense of the University of Wisconsin.

That could all change this season.

“They’re coming off a second-half last year where they rolled,” Kyle said of the Badgers. “There will be times down there where we’ll be under siege for sure.

“These guys are projected to be good. I’m sure they’re going to be good.”

For the third consecutive year, the Badgers and Wildcats will kick off the college hockey regular season against each other in the land of beer, brats, cheese and formerly Brett Favre. Friday’s opener is set for 8 p.m. EDT, while Saturday’s puck drop is scheduled for 9 p.m. EDT.

Northern has won three of the last four games played between the two sides over the past two seasons, including a sweep at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon, Wis., via a pair of third-period comebacks to start 2012-13.

That Badgers team was missing its eventual second-leading scorer by season’s end in rookie forward Nic Kerdiles, someone NMU head coach Walt Kyle has spoken highly of in year’s past even before the Anaheim Ducks draft pick came to Wisconsin.

“We caught a little bit of a break last year with Kerdiles out,” said Kyle, who was a former assistant in the NHL for the Ducks and New York Rangers.

“We’re certainly playing an opponent we really respect. They’re expected to win the Big Ten, so we know it’s a challenge for us.

“It’s great,” he added. “We want to play good teams. Wisconsin has been good enough to schedule us for the next four years. It’s a great opportunity for us.”

Wisconsin, ranked No. 3 in the preseason polls and picked by the coaches to win the Big Ten’s inaugural season, leads the all-time series between the former WCHA rivals 45-27-6.

Going back to January of 2009, though, NMU is 5-1 against the Badgers, with two victories coming in overtime. Three of the five wins have come in Madison, with NMU sweeping in 2009 and splitting with UW in 2011.

Five of the six games have been decided by a single goal and Northern’s 4-2 win in Game 2 last year was padded by an empty-netter.

“Talking to (assistant coach Gary) Shuchuk, he looked at our game film last year playing Northern Michigan and we actually played quite well,” UW coach Mike Eaves said during his weekly press conference. “We didn’t find a way to win games because we didn’t score enough. We found a couple ways to lose.”

Being swept by NMU last season was only the beginning of an awful first two months of 2012-13 for the Badgers, who won one of their first 11 games. The second victory came Dec. 1 at Denver, followed by a pair of ties at home to Michigan Tech.

Starting with a sweep of Alabama-Huntsville in Madison before Christmas, the Badgers finished their final season in the WCHA 20-5-2 to win the WCHA Final Five Broadmoor Trophy Championship and reach the NCAA tournament.

“There were storms we had last year, and who’s to say we’re not going to have storms here now?” Eaves said. “We’re certainly going to be on our toes ready to get out of the port on a good note and get off to a good start.”

Top-seeded UMass-Lowell bounced the Badgers from the first round of the Northeast Regional, but the UW program only graduated three seniors from that squad and lost just sophomore Brendan Woods early to the NHL.

The result is Eaves has the most juniors (7) and seniors (9) back this year since his program’s last appearance in the Frozen Four in 2010.

Two of his seven juniors are the goaltenders – Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson – who made their first collegiate starts two years ago against NMU in Madison.

Rumpel, in goal for the Badgers’ one win in the last two seasons vs. Northern, posted the second-best, single-season save percentage (.929) and goals against average (1.96) in UW history last year.

On offense, UW brings back 91 of its 112 goals, led by senior forward Michael Mersch. The 23 goals he scored last year, including his first of the year against NMU, makes him the second-leading returning goal scorer in the country.

“We have an upperclassmen team for the first time in a long time,” Eaves said during Big Ten Media Day. “Based on that, if you look at college athletics, teams that are successful are upperclassmen teams.”