March 20, 2009 PRINT Bookmark and Share

One Last Twist of Fate For Northern Michigan

by Nicole Auerbach/CHN Reporter

DETROIT — Northern Michigan goalie Brian Stewart slammed his stick on the ground as the final buzzer blared. The stick head flew into the boards on his right. He tossed the other half into the boards behind the net before crouching down into the net, head hanging down.

Twenty-three seconds of hope — a late tie leading into the final minute of the game — turned to heartbreak.

And in a season full of streakiness, the end was surprisingly predictable for the Northern Michigan hockey team.

The Wildcats fell 2-1 to the nation’s top-ranked team, Notre Dame, this afternoon at Joe Louis Arena in the CCHA semifinals.

The result was expected — but not the way it happened.

For almost 59 minutes of play, it seemed like the Fighting Irish had the game comfortably in hand. They held a one-goal lead, normal for the Irish, and with senior Jordan Pearce between the pipes, it looked safe.

Then, with 1:23 left in regulation, a lucky bounce off a skate put Northern Michigan on the board. The Wildcats’ scrappy, determined play paid off.

Only to see the Irish make the kind of play champions make when their backs are suddenly, and unexpectedly, against the wall. Ben Ryan, moments after seeing the game tied, stunned the Wildcats in return.

"Well it was the kind of goal that you want to score," Ryan said. "The slot was open and we had been saying the whole game 'just get it to the back of the net.' I just kind of found it in front of the net and was able to get a quick rebound."

Another tough finish.

“We’ve gotten better through long stretches in each series,” Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle said. “We’ve gotten better through each game.”

But the kind of steady improvement Kyle referred to was missing in the first of the regular season. The Wildcats struggled against everyone. And then something clicked.

It clicked against middle-of-the-pack CCHA teams, like Lake Superior State. It clicked against bottom-dwellers, like Michigan State. And it even clicked against the talented Miami team last weekend.

But not against the nation’s best.

Even after a red-hot second half of the season in which Northern Michigan lost just four of its final 21 games, the Wildcats couldn't match the Fighting Irish.

Even with the services of 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior goalie Brian Stewart, who has been key in the late-season surge, Northern Michigan couldn’t shut down Notre Dame’s offensive attack, the nation’s seventh-best scoring offense.

And even after coming into the game with momentum from last weekend’s upset series win over No. 12 Miami, the Wildcats stalled.

“We played pretty much the kind of game we needed to play to get a win here tonight,” Kyle said of the physical contest. “We knew we were going to have to keep it close.”

Though the game plan was followed, it wasn’t enough. It was a painful end for Northern Michigan, a team that clawed back into CCHA contention after an abysmal 3-12-3 first half that included a seven-game winless streak from mid-October to mid-November. The close-but-not-quite-enough finish of today’s game mirrored the season all too perfectly.

Two more wins, and the Wildcats would have secured an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It would have been the first time they would have earned an invitation since the 1998-99 season.

Instead, Stewart’s broken stick provides lasting imagery of Northern Michigan’s heartbreaking end. Tomorrow’s consolation game merely means a chance for younger, less experienced players to gain ice time, Kyle said.

And so the rebuilding and rebounding begins for the Wildcats.

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