NMU hockey: Wildcats running low on defensemen as blue liners fight through injuries

MARQUETTE – The last time the Northern Michigan University hockey team faced the WCHA preseason favorites in Minnesota State, the Wildcats had just lost senior captain and defenseman C.J. Ludwig to a season-ending knee injury.

It turns out that was just the tip of the iceberg for NMU along the blue line.

The ‘Cats could be without three more defensemen in Wade Epp, Brock Maschmeyer and Luke Eibler at 7:07 p.m. on Friday and Saturday against the Mavericks at the Berry Events Center in Marquette.

All three missed last Saturday’s 4-2 loss at Alaska-Anchorage with upper body injuries. They’re questionable to play against an MSU team that swept the Wildcats in December in Mankato, Minn., 3-2 and 3-0.

“They didn’t sweep us, they killed us,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “They’re the best team we’ve played all year offensively. They hemmed us in. Their forwards were dynamic.

“I didn’t think we were very good, but even if we were good, they were really good.”

Epp, a senior who had played much of his collegiate career alongside Ludwig, had appeared in every game prior to the series at UAA. He even played through a foot injury before Christmas at Mankato and at North Dakota before getting healthy again after the holidays.

Maschmeyer, a freshmen, was moved to forward at the beginning of the year then back to defense once Ludwig was lost.

Maschmeyer had to leave the Jan. 18 loss to Alaska early and didn’t make the trip to Anchorage.

Eibler, a junior transfer who missed the Dec. 6-7 series in Mankato, played Friday against the Seawolves, but was then a late scratch after warmups in Game 2 at UAA.

Epp and Maschmeyer are both questionable after skating Tuesday and Wednesday in practice, but Eibler is doubtful and could miss significant time, Kyle said.

“Our problem injury-wise all year has been at (defense). What are you going to do?” Kyle said.

“Friday night we did a real good job and through the first period on Saturday, we did a pretty good job. The guys in there did a good job and I think they’ll continue to do a good job.”

Junior Jake Baker is the lone NMU defenseman to have appeared in all 24 games thus far, though even he played with a bad shoulder in December.

Junior Mitch Jones, who dubbed Baker “the rock” and “most fit guy in the WCHA,” has missed just one game this season – Jan. 17 against Alaska – and sophomore Barrett Kaib has missed five games.

Not counting the 10 games Ludwig has missed with his injury, Wildcat defensemen have missed 14 games, leaving Kyle no choice but to do the opposite of last season.

Instead of moving defensemen like Jones up to forward, Kyle is shuffling forwards back to the blue line.

At Anchorage, junior forward Nate Taurence played both nights on defense alongside Baker, while junior forward Ryan Kesti was moved to defense Saturday to replace Eibler.

Both Taurence and Kesti are native defensemen who have been converted to fourth-line forwards.

“I thought they both did a good job defensively and moving the puck,” Baker said. “Kesti was bouncing back and forth. He’s always been a good well-rounded player. Nate did a good job, as well.”

Despite the injuries on the blue line, the Wildcats have been anything but a sieve this season defensively.

In WCHA games, the Wildcats are tied with Bowling Green as the No. 1 scoring defense in the league, giving up 2.25 goals per game. The 36 goals allowed in 16 league games is a league low.

“There’s always room for improvement, but I think so far, especially rotating guys through – there’s been eight or nine of us who have played now – we’ve done pretty good as a group,” Jones said.

Northern’s power play hasn’t suffered, either, despite the injuries to Ludwig and Maschmeyer, both of whom quarterbacked the attack when healthy.

In WCHA games, NMU (20.6 percent) is second to Minnesota State (27.3 percent) on the power play. The Wildcats have yet to give up a shorthanded goal in league play after allowing 13 total a year ago.

NMU converted on three of 11 chances in Anchorage after going 1 for 8 at home the week before against Alaska.

Jones was a big reason NMU found success against the Seawolves, scoring twice on the power play from the point in Friday’s win.

Freshman forward Dominik Shine tipped in another blast by Jones on the power play Saturday.

“That was important because Jones is very capable of playing there and we know that,” Kyle said. “He played there a year ago and was vulnerable to turnovers and he hasn’t been this year.

“He did a good job and I’m happy with him.”