NMU Trying to Make Most of Second Chance
by Courtney Lewis/CHN Reporter
Northern Michigan is getting very good at midseason turnarounds. But the Wildcats had hoped they wouldn’t need one this year.
After finishing strong last season and making a run in the CCHA playoffs, they were expected to build on that this season and have a good shot at an NCAA tournament bid.
But a dreadful start to the 2008-09 campaign has left them needing to win the CCHA Championship this weekend to make the NCAA playoffs.
“Going in, we obviously didn’t want that to happen again. But it did,” goaltender Brian Stewart said. “We knew if we just kept working hard and listened to (coach Walt Kyle), we would find ways to win. If we had done that earlier, we hopefully would have had an NCAA bid already.”
Instead, the Wildcats (18-16-5), who sit tied for 22nd in the Pairwise, are out of contention for an at-large berth and have to knock off top-seeded Notre Dame on Friday just to reach the conference championship game. Michigan and Alaska will play the second semifinal contest at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The winner of Saturday’s title game earns a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Northern Michigan’s season started even worse than last year. Its 3-12-3 record through December included two seven-game winless streaks.
“The first half of the season, I think we were projected pretty high in the rankings in the league and (nationally), and I think we let that go to our heads,” sophomore Mark Olver said. “Then we realized how hard it is to play against these teams, how hard you have to compete.”
The Wildcats opened 2009 with a sweep of Wisconsin in Madison. They doubled their first-half win total in the first month of the second half, going 6-1-1, and then lost just two more regular-season games.
“It just kind of clicked,” Stewart said. “Everybody has come together. We’re working together; we’re battling.”
Olver, a 5-foot-11 forward, boosted the offense. It took him 11 games to find the back of the net, and he had just four goals and five assists by the end of December. But he had a four-point weekend at Wisconsin and now leads the team in goals (16) and points (35).
He was Northern Michigan’s leading scorer as a freshman, and he said he put too much pressure on himself coming into this season.
“When things weren’t going well, people said, ‘You know how to score; the goals will come.’ But they weren’t,” Olver said. “As the first half wound down, I realized things weren’t going the way I wanted, so I really busted down doing the little things.
“When I came back for the second part of the season, I realized it’s not about points. It never really has been with me, but it was just nice to finally feel that again, and things started to click after that. I haven’t looked back since, and neither has the team.”
The sixth-seeded Wildcats have stayed hot in the postseason. They eliminated Michigan State in two games and then upended No. 3 seed Miami in three last weekend.
Now that they’re playing the way they’re capable of, it’s hard not to think about what might have been if they had pulled things together earlier.
“A bunch of guys have been talking about that the last couple weeks,” Stewart said. “It’s kind of frustrating, but there’s nothing we can do about it now. We gotta get ready for this weekend.”
Notre Dame, currently the top-ranked team in the country, skated all over Northern Michigan in the regular season. The Fighting Irish won all four meetings and handed the Wildcats their only back-to-back losses of the second half.
The Wildcats know their penalty kill has to be better Friday. It could hardly be any worse than the last time around, when Notre Dame scored 10 power-play goals in two games.
And Olver thinks that Stewart has been playing better in net than we was in February. Stewart, a junior, held strong against Miami last week, when the RedHawks outshot the Wildcats by almost a 2-1 margin every night. He made 39 saves in a Game 2 overtime win and 41 the next night.
“He has been playing really well for us,” Olver said. “He was big last weekend; he made some huge saves. He’s pretty much what we’re riding on right now. The offense is kind of there, but Stewie has been phenomenal.”
But Olver said great goaltending alone won’t be enough against a team as strong as Notre Dame. And the Wildcats are realistic about their chances of upsetting Notre Dame and then also beating Michigan, which is ranked third nationally, or Alaska to secure an NCAA bid.
Olver said their best hope for today might be that “maybe Notre Dame will take us lightly after beating us up all year.”
Otherwise, they know it will be a daunting task. But they’re desperate to keep their season alive, and they have already surprised one team this postseason.
“We’ve had momentum going the past few weeks, going into the playoffs and with a good series with Miami,” Olver said. “We’re rolling on a little momentum right now, and hopefully we carry that into this weekend.”