Team of the Week: Northern Michigan
CHN Staff Report
For the second consecutive year, Northern Michigan opened its season with a win over Wisconsin. This time, though, the Wildcats followed up their opening night effort with an encore performance on the season's second night, thereby sweeping the Badgers to start their season 2-0 for the first time since 2003-04.
A closer look at the two games reveals at least the suggestion of a pattern — one of a strong defensive game (for instance, only three shots allowed by Northern Michigan in the third period of game one), of a confident goaltender in Jared Coreau (two goals allowed all weekend), and perhaps most notably, of an inclination to battle adversity — on the road, no less.
In each of Northern Michigan's opening weekend wins, the Wildcats needed a strong third period to leave the Resch Center in Green Bay with a victory. On Friday, a Reed Seckel tally just 18 seconds into the third period erased a 1-0 Wisconsin lead. And less than nine minutes later, freshman Coden Ahair scored the first goal of his career, the game winner, and the first of two goals in what was ultimately a breakthrough weekend for the rookie from Stratford, Ont.
Saturday, the Wildcats found themselves trailing again — this time down 2-1 with less than eight minutes to play before a three-goal outburst in the final minutes sealed the weekend sweep.
After a 2011-12 season in which coach Walt Kyle's crew finished with a .500 league record and lost a first-round series to then-upstart Bowling Green, the Wildcats came into this season knowing that they could rely on their blueliners, with all starting defensemen returning — a luxury for any college hockey team. The question however, as Kyle stressed repeatedly in the preseason, revolved around the offense. Gone, after all, are Tyler Gron, a top-5 CCHA scorer a year ago, and Justin Florek, a finalist last season for the league's Best Defensive Forward award.
Perhaps, with two goals in his first two games, Ahair is on his way to helping replace some of that offense. And his stature — at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds — may be indicative of the culture of the Wildcats in general this season: tough, physical, and imposing.
And it helps, of course, that Coreau picked up where he left off last year, when he boasted a .931 save percentage that ranked third-best in the league.
Northern Michigan will have little time to celebrate its opening weekend sweep in Wisconsin. The Wildcats go on the road again this weekend to take on Nebraska-Omaha before returning home to play consecutive weekend series against Notre Dame and Michigan. Lots of teams in college hockey history, after all, have started their season 2-0 only to have high expectations fade as the winter rolls along.
Time will tell what the future holds for the Wildcats, but either way, Kyle knows his team has plenty still to prove.