Northern Michigan: The Upstarts in Detroit
by Emily Hack/CHN Reporter
MARQUETTE, Mich. Northern Michigan, the No. 6 seed in the CCHA tournament, surprised college hockey fans everywhere last weekend after it booted Michigan State, reigning National Champions, to take its place competing for the CCHA Championship this weekend in Detroit.
The Wildcats have had a roller coaster season with unexpected twists and turns, ups and downs. With so little stability, fans haven't always been able to see the best side of Wildcat hockey.
"It's been a pretty up and down season so far, but I think the last half of the year we've really come together as a team and that's what's helping us get through the playoffs right now," co-captain T.J. Miller said.
The Wildcats will play Michigan in the semifinals, a team not only top seeded in the tournament, but No. 1 in the polls and Pairwise.
Michigan came up to Marquette to play Northern for its first conference game of the season. The Wolverines left the series with four points.
"We played Michigan at home," sophomore goalie Brian Stewart said. "It was our fourth or fifth game of the year and we're still pretty young. We lost both games by a goal or two. The first night we lost 3-1 and the second 4-3. They were both pretty tight battles."
"We were a much different team and I think that time we were processing goaltenders," head coach Walt Kyle said. "We had young kids who hadn't been through very many games in college hockey."
In February, the Wildcats had another series against Michigan, this time at Yost Ice Arena, which is considered by many, the most fierce rink to play in. The 'Cats left the series with two points, tying 3-3 both nights.
"The first time we played Michigan it was a pretty intense game," Miller said. "They're young like us but we made just one mistake too many and they took it to us. The second time we played them we kind of learned from it and were able to tie them twice at Yost."
"That series is much more indicative of the team that we are," Kyle said. "Having said that, those games are a little bit deceiving; they were 3-3 ties but both of those games, Michigan had numerous opportunities and chances both nights."
Despite the ups and downs, the Wildcats finished sixth in the CCHA, securing home ice for first round of the playoffs.
When the No. 11 (CCHA) Ohio State Buckeyes came to Marquette, all eyes were on the ice. Last season, the Buckeyes hosted the first round against Northern, but in Columbus. Ohio State took the first night and the Wildcats came back to win nights two and three.
History tends to repeat itself, and it did this season. The Buckeyes took night one of the best of three series 4-3. The Wildcats retaliated with two more wins to send them into the second round of the CCHA playoffs.
Kyle said leadership is the key to the team's success, especially at home.
"Leadership has to carry throughout your whole team. Not just your guys wearing letters," Kyle said. "I think we have a lot of guys here who are experienced and have been around the program. They know what I expect, they know what the coaches want to create and I think they've done an excellent job creating that culture. All the guys wearing letters: Billy Smith, T.J. Miller, Nick Sirota [have done great].
"Matt Siddall has done a great job stepping in the forefront and being a leader for us. Tim Hartung has really done a good job. We have guys that people would look at and not think they're major players on the team. Guys like Andrew Sarauer. He's done a phenomenal job creating the culture that we want. We're really pleased with the leadership and we're really pleased with the effort everyone's making together."
Traveling down to East Lansing to face the Spartans in the quarterfinals; losing Game 1 made it even harder. But after some extensive mind-change, the 'Cats came back to win Games 2 and 3. Kyle often spoke of winning games and series late, and it was becoming a heavy habit.
The concern comes into the CCHA Championships, held March 21-22 at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. The 'Cats have one game to lock up a win, not three, and Game 1 wins haven't been their habit.
"We're taking it one game at a time right now.," Miller said. "We have to play against Michigan and if we get by them we'll just have to worry about Saturday."
With notable freshmen taking more shots and scoring more goals than thought possible, and defense so good it can lay National Champions to rest, the Michigan Wolverines will have to keep their game sharp — at least, much sharper than in February.
"I think this season has gone along and we certainly had a lot of guys grow up, filling roles, and becoming the kind of players we'd hoped they'd become this year," Kyle said. "We've also solidified ourselves in goal. We know who our number one goaltender is right now.
"I can tell you that Mark Olver and Erik Gustafsson were rewarded with the All-Rookie Team. We're certainly proud of them and very pleased for them. We've never had two guys on that before.
"We have some other guys that have really stepped to the front. Phil Fox now has 13 goals, for a freshman that's outstanding. Jerad Brown was very good the last 8-10 games of the regular season and has some scores in the playoffs right now. Those guys are all continuing to grow and continuing to develop. Greger Hanson is in the top 15 for CCHA Rookie scoring. We're really happy with our freshman class and happy with their contribution."
The only way for Northern Michigan to secure an NCAA berth is by winning the CCHA tournament. It can also bust the bracket, and knock teams off that are currently in position to make it.
"There aren't many times as in your life as a player you get two games within a championship," Kyle said. "So at this point these guys have done a great job. We're two games away and we have to play the No. 1 team in the country."
"It's going to be huge," Stewart said. "Michigan is the No. 1 ranked team in the country we've just got to do everything we can. Hopefully it will be a good game."