NMU hockey: Wildcats find themselves in tight dogfight for playoff positioning in WCHA
MARQUETTE – Northern Michigan University head hockey coach Walt Kyle and his counterpart at Michigan Tech, Mel Pearson, each have differing views on posting a WCHA standings board in the players locker room.
Kyle has one in the Wildcats’ locker room at the Berry Events Center and has since the team’s days in the CCHA. According to Kyle, it’s good to make the team aware of where they stand and the importance of every point.
Heading into tonight and Saturday’s night’s 7:07 p.m. league games against Ferris State in downstate Big Rapids, the ‘Cats are holding down the final playoff spot in eighth place, just three ahead of ninth-place Lake Superior State and two points back of fourth-place Alaska-Anchorage.
“The players have to have the mentality that we have to win our own games,” Kyle said. “Every night is an opportunity to win and every night is an opportunity to get points.
“I think sometimes when you’re sitting in ninth or eighth place, it’s a good thing to make your players aware that you are there, but the standings are false right now.”
Meanwhile at Michigan Tech’s John MacInnis Student Ice Arena in Houghton, Pearson does not display the WCHA standings in the Huskies’ locker room. According to the Tech coach, it’s not healthy for his team to be wracking their engineering brains over scenarios week in an week out.
For instance, a week ago at this time Tech was in a three-way tie for seventh in the WCHA and in danger of missing the postseason. Now, the Huskies are in a three-way tie for fifth and a Winter Carnival sweep of Alabama-Huntsville away from climbing to as high as third in the league.
“It’s all about trying to get points every weekend,” said Pearson, whose Huskies play a home and home against NMU on Feb. 21 in Houghton and Feb. 22 in Marquette.
“You might look at it this weekend and shoot, next weekend it can totally flip flop. There’s no real sense in getting too hung up in the standings at this point.”
Should the Huskies somehow get swept by the last-place, one-win Chargers, they very well could fall from a three-way tie for fifth and back into a three-way tie for seventh if the right scenarios play out.
As for the Wildcats, they could drop into ninth without a win in Big Rapids, or climb as high as a tie for third with a sweep of the first-place, No. 5-ranked Bulldogs.
A sweep will be a tall task considering the Bulldogs took three of four points from Northern in Marquette over the Thanksgiving weekend.
On the bright side, the Wildcats’ tie with Ferris on Nov. 3 was one of only three during the Bulldogs’ then nation-leading 16 game unbeaten streak.
“There is no sense of urgency, but there is an awareness that every night points are on the table and as close as it is, the standings change,” Kyle said. “You can go in a weekend from third to eighth. You take yourself out of contention or play yourself into a very good spot.”
According to Kyle, the key to making a jump in the league standings is finding a way to gain a series sweep, which has been easier said than done in the WCHA against everyone but Alabama-Huntsville.
Not counting series against UAH, there have only been six sweeps in 18 league series since the league returned to conference play the weekend of Jan. 3-4, with three taking place over the weekend of Jan. 10-11 when Alaska-Anchorage swept Minnesota State at home, Ferris State swept Michigan Tech in Big Rapids and Bemidji State took two from Lake Superior State in Sault Set. Marie.
The other three sweeps were by Northern Michigan at Bemidji on Jan. 3-4, by Minnesota State at home against Ferris on Jan. 17-18 and by Tech at BGSU last weekend.
Ferris and MSU are competing for the league title, separated by just two points, while the other four to earn sweeps are fighting for home ice and/or a playoff spot.
“You’re treading water, shooting par if you split,” Kyle said.
“Seven teams are competing to stay out of one spot and get into two spots. It’s really, really close. You win two in a weekend like Tech did, it’s a huge thing. We won two in Bemidji, it was huge for us. Otherwise this league is Splitsville.”
Since sweeping the Beavers in Bemidji to start 2014, NMU has split its next three series at home against Alaska and MSU and on the road at UAA. The Wildcats have won all three Friday games, only to lose on Saturday in all three series.
According to Kyle, the team is “getting fat way too easy on Friday night wins” and his captain, senior Stephan Vigier, is searching for answers.
“Obviously we’re doing something wrong,” Vigier said after Saturday’s 5-1 home loss to MSU. “We don’t have an explanation. I wish we did. We got to figure something out. Friday wins are great, but you have to back those up, especially in this league where you need the points because it’s so tight. We have to figure that out.”
The one glaring difference between Fridays and Saturday’s the past three weeks for NMU – besides outscoring opponents 13-7 on Friday and being outscored 13-6 on Saturdays – is the power play.
In its last three Friday wins, NMU is 4 for 10 on the power play. In its last three Saturday losses, NMU is just 1 for 18.
The Wildcats went 0 for 7 on Saturday against the Mavericks and gave up two shorthanded goals to add insult to injury. That night, the power play was not only without senior defenseman C.J. Ludwig, who is out for the season, but freshman defenseman Brock Maschmeyer.
Both have quarterbacked to NMU power play this season, as has junior defenseman Luke Eibler, who no longer is because of an injured wrist.
That left junior defenseman Mitch Jones running both power play units each night from the point, logging 26 minutes of ice time a night.
Maschmeyer is probable to play this weekend against Ferris for the first time since leaving the Saturday home loss to Alaska with an upper body injury.
“Maschmeyer coming back would be huge for us,” Kyle said.