This Time, Slow Start Doesn't Deter Wildcats
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
Coaches often stress the importance of playing well come March.
For Northern Michigan, at least in recent years, that hasn't been the problem — it's October that's caused them trouble.
Last season, the Wildcats got off to a 3-12-3 start over the first two months of the season and recovered to finish 19-17-5. Two years ago, it was a 2-9-0 beginning. Even that year, they finished 20-20-4. But in both cases, NMU's second half run has been a case of too little, too late.
This season got off to another dubious beginning. A 2-5-1 start, thanks in large part to the Swine Flu (6 NMU players were affected), wasn't what the Wildcats had hoped for. But with only seven losses over the last five months, the Wildcats find themselves at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul preparing for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.
"We got a couple of wins there before Christmas," said junior defenseman Erik Gustafsson. "That's what got us into the tournament."
"I give these guys a ton of credit for being able to keep focused," said Wildcats head coach Walt Kyle. "And even more in their ability to improve. It's one of the things we're most proud of is, every year, we get better. We are a different team in the end."
The turnaround began in mid-November when the Wildcats tallied a three-point weekend in South Bend against Notre Dame. The Irish were among the favorites to win the CCHA, and it bolstered the confidence of the Wildcats heading into the holiday stretch.
"That was a huge series," Kyle said. "We started out slow, guys were in and out of the line up and that's where we got it together. From Notre Dame on, we've been a pretty solid team."
In early January, NMU defeated Clarkson and then host Minnesota to capture the Dodge Holiday Classic across the river from the Xcel Center in Minneapolis.
"We had two games prior to that against one of our rivals, Lake Superior, where we lost twice," Kyle said. "It left a real bad taste in our mouth. To come back and win that tournament, in that environment, was real important."
Much of the credit for said turnaround goes to junior forward Mark Olver — whose 19 goals and 29 assists was among the best in the nation this season. Olver is a Hobey Baker top-10 finalist.
"Obviously, it means a lot," Olver said. "But it's the 2-hour rule. You celebrate for a little bit, but I haven't really thought about it much since."
"He's meant a ton," Kyle said. "He's a very good player. He's a fierce competitor, and a dangerous player. We're very fortunate to have him."
But this Wildcat bunch is also a very deep team. Four forwards have scored at least 31 points this season. At 19.9 percent, the NMU power play was tops in the CCHA.
"We're really fortunate to have four really, really high end players," Kyle said. "They're also four of my hardest working players. Anytime you can be blessed to have talented people that show up to work everyday, it's easy for the other guys to follow."
And that power play?
"Luck," Olver said. "Over the last eight games, I don't think there's been a day where we've come off the ice after a power play and been pleased. We've struggled the last few games, so hopefully we'll get that back on track. That's a huge part of our offense and we'll definitely need it here coming down the stretch."
Northern Michigan also boasts one of the top offensive defenseman in the CCHA in Gustafsson, whose 31 points was best among blueliners. His 28 assists was fourth most among all players.
"I came in this season with really high expectations on myself," Gustafsson said. "Throughout the season, we've been focusing on playing really good defense. A lot of ice time, that's pretty much where all my points come from."
In goal, the Wildcats have been buoyed by the resurrection of senior goaltender Brian Stewart. After a rough start, Stewart finished the year tops in the league with a .927 save percentage. His 2.40 goals against and 18-10-7 record were key reasons for the Northern charge down the stretch.
"We've been really blessed since I've been back at Northern, to have really good goaltending," Kyle said. "Since the day [Stewart] got here, he's been a really big part of this team and he's a big reason why we're here. We know what we can expect from him and he's a big reason why we're here."