NMU hockey: Ninth-place Wildcats in danger of missing WCHA playoffs

MARQUETTE – All those games in hand – gone.

The odds of hosting a first-round, best-of-three playoff series – slim.

For the Northern Michigan University hockey team, even a spot in the WCHA playoffs at this point is now in doubt.

“We’ve been in this situation before quite a bit,” NMU senior Erik Higby said. “We’ve found a way to win in the past and just hopefully we can get that last spot.”

No team in the WCHA had more league games remaining after the new year than the Wildcats, who started off the second half of the 2013-14 season well with a road sweep of Bemidji State.

Since then, the ‘Cats have won just four games, including two of their last eight, to fall into ninth place in the WCHA with two weeks to go in the regular season.

“The reality is you have to take it one at a time. You can’t look ahead,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “You can’t look at what you have to do. We play Friday night. The fat lady has not sung. You have to go about your business and keep a real good attitude about it and the guys have been great about it.

“This is it. The last oxygen is in the tank. We just have to take care of it.”

Friday’s and Saturday’s 7:07 p.m. games against Bowling Green State at the Berry Events Center are the last of NMU’s league-high nine second-half home games, of which the ‘Cats have only won three.

Unless Northern wants its March 7-8 trip to Alabama-Huntsville to be its last games of the season, it will need to take two points, maybe even four, from the fourth-place Falcons.

Only the top eight teams in the league make the postseason with the top four seeds hosting. BGSU and NMU are separated by just three points in the standings, meaning a sweep either way could make or break someone’s season.

“It’s a big weekend and if it happens to be the last one (at home), I want to end it on a high note, obviously,” NMU senior captain Stephan Vigier said. “I haven’t put too much thought into it and I hope it’s not our last one.”

The Falcons have a history of coming into Marquette and ending the Wildcats’ season prematurely, but the circumstances are much different this time.

This weekend’s series is not a postseason series like Falcons’ three-game upsets of the Wildcats in the first round of the 2011 and 2012 CCHA playoffs. In those shockers, NMU was the higher seed than BGSU – No. 6 vs. No. 11 – as well.

In regular-season meetings the past three seasons, NMU holds a 5-2-1 advantage over the Falcons with all but two of those games taking place in Bowling Green, Ohio.

“They’ve had our number a little bit,” Vigier said. “I feel like we’ve always been good against them in the regular season, and then for whatever reason in the playoffs, they’ve had our number.

“They’re a good team. They have a lot of experienced forwards now. They were pretty young in my previous three years.”

BGSU senior forward Bryce Williamson, who was a part of both teams to upset NMU in the CCHA playoffs as a freshman and sophomore, is second on the team in points this year with 10 goals and 14 assists.

Falcons junior forward Dan DeSalvo, who had five goals as a freshman in the 2012 upset at NMU, leads BGSU in points this year with six goals and 21 assists.

Another freshman forward from the 2011-12 Falcons, Ryan Carpenter, has only appeared in eight games this year for BGSU due to injuries, tallying three goals and three assists. In his previous two seasons in brown and orange, however, he’s recorded 29 goals and 34 assists.

As for underclassmen, sophomore forward Mark Cooper leads the team in goals with 13 while sophomore defenseman Ralfs Freibergs is expected to return to the Falcons’ lineup after spending the previous two weeks playing for Latvia at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Freibergs, who had an assist in Sochi, was the lone current collegiate player to participate in this year’s Winter Games.

“They have some really good players in Carpenter and Cooper and a number of guys,” Kyle said. “We just have to be very much aware and pay attention to details.”