NMU hockey: Wildcats game plan falls apart in loss at Michigan Tech

MARQUETTE – The last thing Northern Michigan University head coach Walt Kyle wanted to get into Friday with Michigan Tech – or any team for that matter – was a scoring battle.

According to Wildcats senior defenseman Wade Epp, the key to a Wildcats victory was shoring up the team’s breakdowns in the defensive zone.

“We have a good team, we just have to communicate and make sure there’s no little defensive breakdowns that end up in us losing the game,” Epp said Tuesday.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they did have defensive breakdowns on Friday and they did get themselves into a scoring battle, resulting in a 7-4 victory for the Huskies in WCHA play at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena in blizzard-ridden Houghton.

Assuming U.S. Highway 41 is passable, the ‘Cats will get a second shot at executing their game plan at 7:07 tonight against Tech at the Berry Events Center in Marquette.

“I haven’t looked at the scoresheet, but I guarantee that Tech’s upperclassmen were their best players tonight,” Kyle said. “Their veterans got the job done tonight and we did not.”

Kyle was just about spot on.

MTU junior forward David Johnstone tied the game at 1-1 on the power play 1:23 before the first intermission.

Another MTU junior forward, Tanner Kero, gave the Huskies a 4-2 lead as part of a three-goal second period, and Blake Hietala – yes, a junior forward – put the Huskies up 6-3 with 4:22 to play.

The other four Husky goals all came from a pair of freshmen.

Forward Shane Hanna, who also had three assists, gave the Huskies the first of a trio of three-goal leads in the third, scoring at 14:16.

The other three goals credited to a Tech freshman came courtesy of Reid Sturos, who scored his first two – both assisted by junior captain Blake Pietila – less than three minutes apart in the second period to put the Wildcats down 4-2.

Sturos was then credited with the game’s final goal on a power play, creating the final margin with 36 seconds left on the MacInnes clock.

“We still have to tighten up defensively,” Tech head coach Mel Pearson said. “If we are going to go anywhere from here on in, we have to tighten up and play better … we can’t expect to outscore teams.”

Tech sophomore Alex Petan had a pair of assists on Friday, and the same could be said about the Wildcats defensemen, unofficially.

NMU junior defenseman Mitch Jones whiffed on a clear attempt, leaving the puck at the feet of Pietila, who set up Sturos on his first of three goals.

With redshirt freshman goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom (28 saves) pulled out of mercy after Tech went up 5-2 in the third, Hietala split NMU senior forward Stephan Vigier and Epp to beat sophomore Michael Doan (two saves) on a wraparound with under five minutes to play.

“I think we came out in the second and we had two veteran defensemen turn two pucks over,” Kyle said. “Then we had another one of those same guys leave the net uncovered on that (near) shorty and all of a sudden we’re chasing the rabbit. Those are plays we can’t afford to make at critical times in the game, and we did.”

Junior forward Reid Seckel gave the Wildcats a 1-0 lead 34 seconds into the game and sophomore defenseman Barrett Kaib put NMU up 2-1 – though just for 10 seconds – with his first goal as a Wildcat at 4:19 of the second.

NMU sophomore forward Darren Nowick halted a run of four unanswered Husky goals with just his third score of the year at 14:52 of the third period.

Northern junior forward Ryan Daugherty scored his fourth goal and second shorthanded with 1:27 to play in the game, brining NMU within two goals.

Daugherty’s shorty was the Wildcats only special teams goal on Friday and NMU went 0 for 5 on the man advantage.

The Huskies scored on 3 of 5 power play chances with Kero’s goal nearly coming shorthanded, actually just seconds after a Tech penalty expired.

“Their big dogs got the job done tonight,” Kyle said. “Their power play got the job done tonight and we did not.”

Editor’s note: Michael Bleach of the Houghton Daily Mining Gazette contributed to this report.