NMU hockey: Wildcats, Lakers battling for Cappo Cup, WCHA playoff spot

MARQUETTE – The Northern Michigan University and Lake Superior State hockey teams aren’t just battling for the Father Cappo Cup in a two-game WCHA series tonight and Saturday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette.

With a single point separating the eighth-place Wildcats and ninth-place Lakers, the two longtime Upper Peninsula rivals and former CCHA members are fighting for their postseason lives.

In the WCHA, only the top eight teams move on to the league tournament.

“Like every weekend in our league, it’s really, really competitive,” LSSU head coach Jim Roque said. “There are a lot of tight hockey games.

“I feel like I’m a broken record saying this every weekend. As it gets later in the year, every game is big. They’ve been big all year.

“I don’t think this weekend will be any more or less important than a week in November,” he added. “We’ve had the same approach.”

Both the Lakers (13-14-1 overall, 9-11-0 in WCHA, 18 points) and Wildcats (11-15-2, 9-10-1, 19) have some breathing room in the battle for WCHA playoff positioning, as both have played only 20 league games thus far.

Much of the league has four games remaining after this weekend. But NMU and LSSU will have six games, including two at last-place, one-win Alabama-Huntsville.

For example, Alaska and Bemidji (Minn.) State – tied for sixth with 20 points – have just four games to get points over the last three weeks. But the Beavers do get to host UAH at the end of the month.

“They’re in the exact same position we are,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “There’s no difference between where we are and they are but one point.”

Northern enters the weekend on a three-game losing streak after being swept by first-place and No. 4 ranked Ferris State in Big Rapids last weekend, leaving the ‘Cats 5-5 over their last 10 games.

LSSU is just 3-7 over their last 10 and has only four wins total since starting the year 9-4-1.

Much of the Lakers’ struggles have come in goal. Senior netminder Kevin Murdock has taken over as the full-time starter, with fellow senior goalie Kevin Kapalka out indefinitely with a groin injury.

In 15 games and 13 starts so far this season, Murdock is 6-9-0 with a 3.78 goals against average and .892 save percentage.

Since taking over for Kapalka nine minutes into a Jan. 10 home loss to Bemidji, however, Murdock is 2-6-0 with a 4.39 GAA and .882 save percentage.

Kapalka had a 2.51 GAA and .931 save percentage in 15 games and 15 starts before getting injured.

“(Murdock) hasn’t played real good. His numbers show that,” Roque said. “He’s got to play better and he’s done it. He’s played well over the years here.

“He’s had a tough stretch. I don’t know why, but at the same time, he’s a guy that can turn it around quick. We have a lot of faith in him.”

NOTES: The last time Murdock was in goal at the BEC, he stopped 35 shots to shut out NMU, 3-0, in the regular-season finale. The win gave LSSU a 3-1 series win and the Cappo Cup, plus the final home-ice spot in the first-round of the CCHA playoffs. NMU fell to 10th and had to play at Michigan, where it was swept. After playing each other four times a year – twice in Marquette and twice in Sault Ste. Marie – for 14 straight seasons, NMU and Lake Superior State play only two games against each other this year. It’s the first time since the 1995-96 season, when NMU and LSSU only played each other once, the Wildcats will not play in Sault Ste. Marie. The only team NMU has played more than LSSU in its 37-year history is Michigan Tech, 128 games to 106. The Wildcats lead the all-time series with the Lakers 61-35-10.