Team of the Week: Northern Michigan
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Things have not been easy for Northern Michigan this season. Injuries mounted, its captain was ineligible for the first half of the season, and the goaltending — so reliable last season — got off to a shaky start.
Then things changed.
In the last six games, Northern Michigan has allowed a combined three goals, and is 5-0-2 in the last seven. Despite a dreadful start, that's the Wildcats' longest such streak since 2008-09.
"We changed a little bit what we're doing in a couple areas, but not huge changes," NMU coach Walt Kyle said. "A little bit of tactical stuff. But most of the credit falls to the guys."
Whether NMU can keep it up into the WCHA playoffs is the next obvious question. But at least some of signs point towards that possibility.
It starts with captain Shane Sooth. Ineligible for the first half, Sooth returned in the second half and has been the leader and spark Kyle figured he would be.
"He is our heartbeat," Kyle said. "He's a very good player that plays 20 minutes a night, kills penalties, first power play, top line ... so not having him was a big loss. For all the play aspects, more importantly from a stabilizing factor in the room. We have other leaders, but Shane is the guy."
Goaltender Atte Tolvanen has come back into form. Last season, as a freshman, Tolvanen had a .929 save percentage. But the first half of the season, he didn't look like the same guy. Suddenly, now, his numbers are on the rise, and his current three-game shutout streak helped snap the program record for consecutive scoreless minutes.
"I remember being in practice with our assistant and him saying, 'My god, Atte looks incredible. He looks like a year ago,'" Kyle said.
And that young defense has had more than half a season to mature now. There was a point where the team was playing two freshmen and two sophomores with little experience. One of its better sophomores, James Vermeulen, broke his jaw in the preseason, returned, then broke it again in December and has been out of the lineup.
The freshmen 'D' include 6-foot-3 Rylan Yaremko, who has come into his own, and sparkplug Philip Beaulieu.
"They did a good job and grew through it, but there were growing pains," Kyle said.
The team started out 3-5-1, including two wins against Wisconsin. Then it went through a 1-9-1 stretch, bottoming out with two losses at home to Alabama-Huntsville where NMU totaled just two goals. In the first half, the Wildcats were shut out five times.
From there, the team went to the Florida Tournament and got outscored, 9-4, though Kyle said a myriad of travel issues assured the team would struggle. When it came home, however, and had time to get back to work, things started to improve from there.
"I'm not going to declare us cured, we still have a long way to go," Kyle said. "But I give these guys a ton of credit for their resiliency and their ability to ignore all the catcalls and stuff from outside, and stay focused on being the best they can."
At the moment, NMU wouldn't make the playoffs. The WCHA is currently the only league where not all teams make it — just eight of the 10 do. The Wildcats are two points behind Alabama-Huntsville for eighth place with two games in hand, though they would lose tiebreakers. There are six regular-season games remaining — a home pair with Alaska this week, then two at Minnesota State, and a home-and-home with Upper Peninsula rival Michigan Tech.
Schools like Michigan Tech, Bemidji State and Minnesota State have been able to leverage the new WCHA to their advantage, and re-energize their programs. Other storied programs — ones that have won national championships before — like NMU, Lake Superior State and Bowling Green, have not yet been able to do so. Not entirely. A key difference, especially in Northern Michigan's case, is the resources it takes to keep up.
That is not something, of course, that many in and around Marquette, Michigan, want to hear or understand. They just want their team to make the NCAAs regularly like they used to, back in the day.
These are the challenges Kyle faces as he comes up to a contract year.
"I know my hockey team, I'm confident in what I'm doing. And this is the favorite team I've coached," Kyle said. "We're sub-.500, but they believe, they've hung in there. We had a 3.29 GPA last semester with 14 guys on the dean's list. They're great kids.
"I'm old enough and been around long enough that I don't pay attention to the residual noise. I coach a great bunch of guys that have stayed strong. I told them they're going to get everything I have every day, and they've given me everything they have."