NMU hockey: Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech battling for playoff positioning, not just U.P. pride

MARQUETTE – Throughout the run up to Northern Michigan University reuniting with Michigan Tech in the WCHA this season, there was talk from Wildcats head coach Walt Kyle and Huskies head coach Mel Pearson about how someday, more than pride would be on the line when the two heated Upper Peninsula rivals meet.

That day has come.

“This is what you hoped for as fans, a weekend like this,” Pearson said. “Now you have your two biggest rivals not only playing for U.P. pride, but you’re playing to get into the playoffs or to get home ice.

“There’s so much at stake on this, and that’s the beauty of now being in the league with each other.”

Postseason positioning, not U.P. pride, takes priority this weekend when Northern and Tech meet at 7:07 p.m. on Friday at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton and at 7:07 p.m. on Saturday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette.

With six points separating third-place Alaska-Anchorage and ninth-place Lake Superior State, the Wildcats and Huskies find themselves between missing the WCHA playoffs at No. 9 and hosting a first-round, best-of-three series as either the No. 3 or 4 seed.

“The standings are a bigger priority for us, but in the back of the mind, we want to beat these guys,” NMU senior defenseman Wade Epp said.

“The rivalry will always be here and always be an intense rivalry, but based on the standings and how close they are and our position in the standings, it just elevates the meaning and intensity these games will have.”

The Huskies currently sit in a three-way tie for fourth with Alaska and Bowling Green at 24 points, just two back of third-place UAA.

Tech has only four games remaining, however, in its regular season. After a two-game home-and-home series with NMU, the Huskies take a weekend off before closing the season at Minnesota State.

The Mavericks are tied with Ferris State at the top of the league standings, and are 13-1-0 overall this season in Mankato.

“You don’t have to tell me Minnesota State has lost only one home game and that was a long, long time ago,” Pearson said. “They’re as good as anybody.

“Northern, since I’ve been here, we haven’t won at Northern. It’s a tough place to play.

“There is a sense of urgency around these games. There’s no wiggle room.”

The Wildcats sit in eighth place in the WCHA with 21 points, just one ahead of ninth-place LSSU and one back of seventh-place Bemidji State.

While three points back of the Huskies, Falcons and Nanooks, the ‘Cats have two more league games on its schedule than all three, as well as Bemidji.

After this weekend’s series with the Huskies, the Wildcats host Bowling Green on Feb. 28-March 1 for its final regular season home series, followed by a trip to Alabama-Huntsville, which is locked into last place at 1-20-1 in league play and 1-30-1 overall.

“The standings pretty much explain it. Points at this time of the year are critical,” Kyle said.

“Where we are in the standings, whether Tech is one of the teams ahead of us or not, we need to get points. That’s the priority.”

The Huskies and Wildcats have both battled inconsistency this season. with both teams going 6-6 since New Years Day.

MTU recently put together a four-game win streak that included a road sweep of Bowling Green and home sweep of Alabama-Huntsville. In those four games, Tech outscored the opposition 24-11.

Last weekend, while sitting alone in third place in the league, the Huskies were swept on their own ice by Alaska, 7-3 and 7-2. Earlier in the season, Tech ended a nine-game winless streak on the road with a sweep of the Nanooks in Fairbanks.

“We’ve always been used to chasing, and now all of a sudden, we’re being chased a little bit, and I didn’t think we handled it well,” Pearson said about being swept at home by Fairbanks.

“Now we’re back as the chaser, so we’ll probably be much better this weekend.”

While the Huskies were winning four in a row, NMU was losing four in a row. That skid finally ended Saturday with a 5-1 Cappo Cup-clinching victory over LSSU in Marquette.

After starting 2014 winning four of five games, NMU has just two victories in its last seven games, having taken down ninth-place LSSU and then second-place Minnesota State.

“There’s one night a weekend we can play with anyone in the country and one night a weekend anyone in the country can beat us,” Kyle said. “We have to find a cure for that.

“I think when we’re playing well defensively, we’re very good and very solid. If you watched us over the last four weeks, you’ll see us one night where we aren’t very good and another night where we are very good.”

Recent history says inconsistency will continue this weekend for both Tech and Northern, who are playing four times in the regular season for the first time since 2004-05.

This weekend’s series is also the latest these two teams have meet in a season since 1996-97, when they played Feb. 21-22 on the third-to-last week of the regular season.

Since Pearson took over the Huskies’ program in 2011-12, Tech is 2-1 in Houghton, having won the last two meetings at MacInnes Ice Arena by a combined score of 12-3.

The Wildcats have owned Pearson’s teams in Marquette, however, with NMU going 3-0 with a much smaller margin of victory, 8-2.

The Huskies’ last win at the BEC came Oct. 8, 2010.

“Going to Tech Friday, we’ve had two pretty bad games the last couple times up there,” NMU senior forward Erik Higby said. “It’d be nice to get a win the last time I’ll be there.”