NMU Wildcats Trying to Regroup After Another Slow Start
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Think of hockey in the state of Michigan, and don't blame yourself if you first think of Michigan and Michigan State, a pair of rivals that, as you may have heard, can draw over 100,000 spectators on any wintry day outside.
But peering down from the cold attic that is the Upper Peninsula are the Northern Michigan Wildcats — in the town of Marquette, away from the attention that comes with being in Ann Arbor or East Lansing, away, really, from the center of the CCHA.
Nevertheless, the Wildcats — winners of the national championship in 1991 — have been quietly going about their business for years, boasting records at or above .500 in all but one of Walt Kyle's eight seasons as head coach at his alma mater.
A year ago, Northern Michigan carried the momentum of a late-season 10-1-1 run all the way to the CCHA championship game. They followed that act with the program's first NCAA tournament appearance since 1999.
But after a long summer that included early departures of elite players Mark Olver and Erik Gustafsson, Kyle and his coaching staff were forced to regroup. Matters only got worse when the young Wildcats' record stood at 0-4-1 just five games into this season.
The fifth game — a 9-1 defeat at the hands of Miami — served as the wake-up call.
"Our hockey team was not good on that weekend," said Kyle. "But as a group, I think it helped us have better resolve and become a better team."
Since being swept in Oxford, the Wildcats have won nine of 15, and have compiled a 6-2-2 record in their last 10 games.
And although senior Greger Hansen and junior Justin Florek have helped steady the ship from a leadership and scoring standpoint, Kyle credits two players who have improved the most since last season, described as "typical" players who are recruited to play at Northern Michigan.
Leading the team in scoring is junior forward Tyler Gron. The Spruce Grove, Alberta, native is on a point-per-game pace this season, with 11 goals and 8 assists in 19 contests thus far.
Said Kyle, "He can make something out of nothing. He still needs to grow his whole game and needs to become a more complete player, but he works hard at it. He's very good with the puck inside the offensive zone. He likes to score, and he wants to go to the difficult areas."
Meanwhile, playing in front of two strong goaltenders in Reid Ellingson and Jared Coreau has been sophomore defenseman Scott Macaulay, who is among the best in the CCHA with a team-leading plus-10 on-ice rating — not bad for a player whom Kyle says was "hidden" in the back of the lineup just a season ago.
"He's taken a huge growth step in regards to being a hockey player," said Kyle. "Right now, he is one of our top players, night in and night out. He's a world class skater and a fierce competitor. He's an honest defender with a good ability to lug the puck up the ice to move it efficiently."
Macaulay has been a central component in an overall improved defensive effort since the 9-1 loss to Miami. After allowing 24 goals in its first five games, Northern Michigan allowed 23 in its next 13.
The result? The Wildcats have climbed up the CCHA standings to fourth place, which fits with NMU's annual propensity under Kyle to start poorly and finish strong. Last season, the start was just OK enough, and the end so good, that the Wildcats made the NCAAs anyway. Perhaps this year, the turnaround has come soon enough as well. But after a year in which Kyle and his squad tasted the possibilities of a league title and even a national title, the expectations now are much higher.
Simply put, there's room for improvement.
"Even though we have had some wins, I would not consider us a good hockey team. We have a long way to go," Kyle said. "College hockey now is very, very close. Everyone has a chance to get [to the NCAA tournament] and have success.
"With the right chemistry and leadership, we hope to be very close again."
And if they succeed, perhaps they won't be peering down as often from the Upper Peninsula.
Instead, everyone else in the CCHA might be looking up.