NMU hockey: Wildcats are back at the Berry for five of next six games

MARQUETTE – If the Northern Michigan University hockey team hopes to travel anywhere else besides Alabama-Huntsville in the month of March – like say, the WCHA Final Five in downstate Grand Rapids – the Wildcats need to take care of business at the Berry Events Center starting this weekend.

The ‘Cats play a league-high five of their next six games on home ice, starting with a pair of 7:07 p.m. games on Friday and Saturday against the U.P. rival Lake Superior State in a two-game series for the Father Cappo Cup.

The Lakers in ninth place in the WCHA and the Wildcats in eighth are separated by a single point in the league standings, leaving more than a trophy on the line during the first of three consecutive weekends of hockey at the BEC.

“We’ve had a real spotty home schedule as the year has gone and we play five of our next six games in our building,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “Fatigue-wise, it’s a good time of the year to not have a lot of travel.

“The schedule is as good as it’s going to get for us and we have to take advantage of it.”

The Wildcats play a home-and-home series Feb. 21-22 against third-place Michigan Tech – Friday in Houghton and Saturday in Marquette – followed by two games at the BEC against fourth-place Bowling Green Feb. 28-March 1 before flying to Huntsville to play the last-place Chargers in the regular season finale.

The Wildcats are 6-4-1 overall at the BEC this season and 5-3-1 in WCHA home games with just one weekend sweep – Nov. 22-23 vs. UAH.

Those numbers rank in the middle of the WCHA and are on par with last year’s squad that finished 8-4-3 overall at the Berry and 7-4-3 in CCHA with the lone sweep being against Ohio State.

Kyle said he can accept 3-4 losses at home in a single season, but not many more.

“We’ve lost some tough ones in here that have been close,” Kyle said.

“I don’t think we’ve been as good at home as we needed to be. Still, we have a good chunk of our home schedule left in front of us and we have to take advantage of those games.”

The Wildcats are not only hoping for wins, but an attendance boost down the stretch. After averaging 2,845 fans per night over 15 games in the CCHA, Northern is averaging 2,315 per contest at the BEC with five of their 16 homes games left to play.

That average is bound to drop, not rise, this weekend going up against the U.P. 200 sled dog race, which is scheduled to begin seven minutes before puck drop on Friday.

The LSSU series is one of many weekends this year that have been hard sells, because of where it landed.

“When you look at some of the dates we had at home; we were home the back end of deer season, we were home Thanksgiving weekend and we’re home against the dog sled races on Friday,” Kyle said.

“When you look at that and not having the traditional rivals like Michigan and Michigan State – them and Michigan Tech are big attendance nights – is it about what I expected? Yeah.”

The back end of the gun deer season Nov. 22-23 against UAH and Thanksgiving weekend Nov. 29-30 vs. Ferris State produced season-lows in attendance with neither weekend totaling 4,000 fans between the two games combined.

A year ago, FSU drew over 2,600 fans on a Friday night and 3,200-plus on a Saturday in the middle of February while series against former CCHA foes Notre Dame and Michigan each drew over 3,000 per night on back-to-back weekends in late October and early November.

Michigan Tech, which sold out its first game this season in Marquette on Oct. 25 (4,260), drew 3,509 on a Tuesday night in December of 2012.

The win in October over the Huskies is the lone game this season at the BEC to draw over 3,000 fans.

“I think another component in there is the way our schedule has fallen, there hasn’t been any real rhythm to the schedule where people can go, ‘Oh, I have to go watch the Wildcats,'” Kyle said. “I think that’s part of it and you have to win too. That’s part of it.”