NMU hockey: Wildcats’ senior class looks to end playoff drought

MARQUETTE – Since reaching the CCHA Championship game and NCAA tournament in 2010, the Northern Michigan University hockey team has lost three consecutive first-round playoff series.

Twice the Wildcats were upset in three games on their home ice as the No. 6 seed against last-place Bowling Green, and last year – the final season for the CCHA – the ‘Cats were swept on the road as the No. 10 seed at No. 7 Michigan.

Now after clinching a WCHA playoff berth on the final weekend of the regular season, the Wildcats are two first-round wins away from reaching the Final Five in Grand Rapids next weekend.

That would be a nice treat for NMU’s senior class, which is 2-6 over the past three seasons in postseason play.

“Everybody knows we haven’t had a lot of success in the playoffs,” NMU senior captain Stephan Vigier said. “Going in as a little bit of an underdog, I guess, it would be pretty sweet to come out of there with a win and go to Grand Rapids. That would be pretty special for sure.”

If Northern’s Class of 2014 wants to win its first playoff series and get to Grand Rapids, it will have to overcome its biggest postseason challenge yet as the No. 7 seed traveling to No. 2 Minnesota State for a best-of-three series that begins tonight and runs through Sunday, if necessary, at the Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato, Minn.

The Mavericks, who fell one point shy in the standings of tying Ferris State for the regular season title, have been nigh unbeatable at home this year, going 14-1-1 overall and 12-1-1 in WCHA play at the VWC.

The Mavs’ only home loss came Nov. 8 against Bowling Green. After that, they rattled off 12 consecutive home wins up until Saturday’s 1-1 tie with Michigan Tech that also snapped an eight-game win streak.

“Against the No. 2 seed, it’d be unreal,” said Wildcats senior defenseman Wade Epp, who was a redshirt freshman along with senior defenseman Austin Handley the last time NMU won a playoff series.

“They have a lot of very skilled forwards. They take advantage of other teams’ mistakes. They have a really good power play.”

In WCHA play this season, four MSU forwards rank among the league’s top 10 in scoring, led by All-WCHA first-team junior Matt Leitner’s eight goals and 25 assists. A point back as the league’s third-leading scorer is All-WCHA second-team junior Jean-Paul Lafontaine with a balanced 16 goals and 16 assists.

MSU senior Johnny McInnis, an All-WCHA third teamer, is sixth with 17 goals and 11 assists while senior Zach Lehrke, also on the All-WCHA third team, is tied for eighth with seven goals and 18 assists. McInnis’ 17 goals tied Alaska’s Cody Kyunk for the league lead.

Lafontaine, Leitner, Lehrke and McInnis – in that order – are the top four scorers on the power play in WCHA play as well with Lafontaine’s 13 power play goals ranking first in the WCHA. His 14 overall sits second in the nation.

“They’re fast and they prey on turnovers,” said Vigier, who is tied for 10th in the league in scoring with nine goals and 14 assists in league play. “They’re a good rush team. We’re going to have to take care of the puck and have a good, high forward to make sure we don’t give them odd-man rushes.”

With all that firepower, the Mavericks rank second in the league in scoring behind Alaska, averaging 3.39 goals per game.

MSU’s power play ranks first by nearly nine percentage points in WCHA play, converting 27.4 percent of the time. That number dips to 25.1 percent overall when you factor in non-league contests. That still is good enough for fourth in the country.

In two wins at Mankato Dec. 6-7 (3-2, 3-0) and a split in Marquette Jan. 31-Feb. 1 (2-5, 5-1) the Mavericks scored on five of 21 advantages for a 23.8 percent success rate.

“They are one of the most talented teams in the league. They’re one of the most talented teams in the country,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “This team can really come at you.

“I think at the end of the day, the series will be decided on special teams and goaltending. We have a lot of work to do on our special teams. I don’t think we’re near where we need to be.”

NMU’s power play ranks fifth in WCHA play at 17.4 percent, but is coming off a 1-for-9 weekend at Alabama-Huntsville. The team was 0 for 6 on Saturday.

The Mavericks are the top-ranked penalty killing team in the WCHA – 91 percent – despite averaging the second-most penalty minutes per game in league play at 16.9.

Northern, on the other hand, holds the second-to-worst penally killing percentage at 77.5 percent while taking the third-most penalties – 15.2 minutes per contest.

Penalties have been plentiful in the four previous games between the Mavericks and Wildcats, who have combined to draw 58 penalties spanning 152 minutes. Of that, 31 penalties and 97 minutes came against the Wildcats.

“Our power play has been good and shown it can be effective, so we have to find some solutions to what they do and they’re a very good penalty killing team,” Kyle said. “We have to find some solutions to that, no doubt.”