NMU hockey: Surprise impact of fourth liners Kesti, Taurence can be felt throughout Wildcats’ lineup

MARQUETTE – With a trio of highly touted freshmen forwards joining the Northern Michigan University hockey team in the fall and two more impact forwards scheduled to become eligible in January, it didn’t look like the Wildcats were going to have much use for junior forwards Ryan Kesti and Nate Taurence this year.

Now, head coach Walt Kyle and the Wildcats realize much of what’s been accomplished in the first 10 games of the season is because of Kesti’s and Taurence’s efforts on the fourth line and penalty.

“There was no way I projected Nate would be in our lineup right now and I would also tell you Ryan was a guy I didn’t project to be in nearly as much,” Kyle said.

“These guys have beat out guys that people would perceive have a higher skill package or who we perceived would play ahead of them.”

Barring an injury, Kesti and Taurence will be called upon again at 7:07 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night at the Berry Events Center when the Wildcats host winless Alabama-Huntsville in WCHA play following a bye week.

Kesti, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound converted defenseman from of Red Wing, Minn., only appeared in 17 games last year after appearing in 34 as a redshirt freshmen in 2011-12.

Taurence, a 5-10, 173-pounder from downstate Trenton, played 18 games at NCAA Division III College of Saint Scholastica in 2010-11 and 10 games last year for NMU after sitting out all of 2011-12.

Both he and Kesti have yet to miss a game this season and like their coach, admit they didn’t expect to see the kind of ice time they’ve received this season.

“Coming into the year, I knew I had to earn a spot,” Kesti said. “I’m just working to still do that now.”

“Am I surprised? A little bit,” Taurence said. “Walt just told me if I keep working hard and do what I do best, I should be alright. What’s really helped me is my penalty killing ability.”

Kesti and Taurence have made the biggest impact as members of the Wildcats penalty kill unit, appearing not only during one-man disadvantages but when the Wildcats have been down two men as well.

Kyle’s ability to put fourth-liners such as Kesti and Taurence out on the penalty kill without sacrificing anything has allowed him to rest key contributors on offense such as senior forward Stephan Vigier and junior forward Reed Seckel.

Vigier, who leads the WCHA in goals scored with 10, has credited the efforts on Kesti and Taurence on the penalty kill for the boost in energy and his extra jump on offense. Instead of Vigier burning all his energy defending, he’s on the ice scoring.

“One of the biggest things (Kesti and Taurence) allowed us to do is back off Vigier and Seckel and not give those guys minutes,” Kyle said. “On the PK, you’re trying to defend, not create offense so they’ve been fresher for the moments that we could use their offense. That’s helped us.”

Northern’s offensive threats have not only been able to take a break during Wildcats’ penalties, but they’ve been able to catch breathers during five-on-five play as well thanks to NMU’s reinvigorated fourth line of Kesti, Taurence and 5-7, 170-pound senior forward Jake Johnson of Duluth, Minn.

The trio, which can be seen leading drills in red jerseys during practices, may not be lighting the lamp with one goal – scored by Johnson – and one assist – tallied by Kesti – between them, but they’re not giving up points either with all three carrying a minus-1 rating going into this weekend’s series.

The group is sucking up ice time and tiring out opposing lines by getting pucks deep into the offensive zone and maintaining possession for extended periods of time.

It sounds simple, but it’s been a key to NMU going 4-5-1 overall and 2-2-0 in the WCHA thus far with all but three games away from the BEC.

“Our job is just to work hard, get pucks deep and be simple,” Kesti said. “If we do that, we’re successful and if we don’t do that, we’re not doing a good job.”

Kyle said in year’s past, he was just filling out his lineup with non-impact guys on the fourth line and that whoever he threw out there, they didn’t have a specific purpose expect to occasionally by the top lines some rest.

Kesti, Taurence and Johnson have changed all that, and the ‘Cats are better for it.

“Our fourth line has been much more valuable this year than it has the last couple years,” Kyle said.

“We’ve really taken a different approach to our fourth line this year in trying to really find guys that can contribute in a role. I don’t think we had those guys in the past.”