MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University head hockey coach Walt Kyle stressed early in the season how important it was for his defensemen to get involved in the offense.
This weekend, the young defensive corp proved to be the spark that set off the Wildcats offensive explosion.
"I thought we were good this week," NMU junior defenseman and co-captain Scott Macaulay said. "We worked hard in practice this week just moving the puck up. We were efficient at it. We made the most of the turnovers, we got the pucks up to the boards and (the forwards) took care of the rest."
Northern capped off a weekend sweep of the Lake Superior State Lakers, 5-3, on Saturday to reclaim the Father Cappo Cup, which had resided in Sault Ste. Maire each of the last two seasons.
Now the Wildcats can continue their pursuit of more hardware, beginning with the CCHA playoffs that begin Friday.
Northern moved from ninth to sixth in the league standings via the sweep, leapfrogging the Lakers, Notre Dame and Ohio State. No. 6 NMU (16-12-16 overall, 11-11-6 in CCHA) will host No. 11 Bowling Green State in a best-of-three series starting Friday in a rematch of the first round series won by the Falcons last year.
The double-overtime defeat in Marquette in Game 3 is something that still sticks with the Wildcats. Just like this weekend, Marquette native Justin Florek doesn't plan to lose his final games in his hometown.
"Obviously going into the weekend we knew it was do-or-die, especially for us seniors here in Marquette," Florek said. "I think the whole team backed us up this weekend and it was a whole team effort. It came from everywhere. The scoring was great.
"If we have a balanced scoring attack like that, I think we can take it pretty far here."
Tickets for NMU's first-round CCHA playoff series against Bowling Green State on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, if necessary, go on sale Monday online and at NMU ticket offices. Adult tickets cost $16. NMU students and children 18 and under can purchase tickets for $5.
Northern Michigan 5, Lake Superior State 3
Lake Superior State. 1 0 2 - 3
Northern Michigan... 2 3 0 - 5
First period - 1, NMU, Tyler Gron/16 (Scott Macaulay/11) 10:22. 2, LSSU, Stephen Perfetto/3 16:39 (sh). 3, NMU, Ryan Daugherty/2 (Scott Macaulay/12, Kyle Follmer/21) 17:42.
Second period - 4, NMU, Mitch Jones/5 (Reed Seckel/9, Matt Thurber/18) 4:58. 5, NMU, Matt Thurber/10 (Scott Macaulay/13, Ryan Daugherty/2) 6:58 (pp). 6, NMU, Kyle Follmer/4 (Scott Macaulay/14, Reed Seckel/10) 19:18 (pp).
Third period - 7, LSSU, Colin Campbell/7 (Zach Trotman/11, Fred Cassiani/14) 3:26. 8, LSSU, Fred Cassiani/7 (Stephen Perfetto/6) 4:57 (sh).
Shots on goal - LSSU 12-12-12 36; NMU 11-12-11 34.
Power plays - LSSU 0 of 3; NMU 2 of 5.
Penalties - LSSU 6 (12 min); NMU 4 (8 min).
Goalies - LSSU, Kevin Murdock (18:44 minutes, 11 shots-11 saves) , Kevin Kapalka 15-12-5-4 (40:00, 23-18); NMU, Reid Ellingson 5-6-4 (59:53, 36-33) , Devan Hartigan (00:07, 0-0).
NMU swept Bowling Green in Ohio earlier this season in a six-goal effort, but it didn't come close to the offensive explosion this weekend in Marquette.
Including the 6-2 win on Friday in Marquette, the Wildcats picked up goals from nine different players to post their highest weekend goal total of the season - 11.
The previous high was nine in a win and tie with Alaska in January at the BEC, however, Kyle was quick to squash any notion that the NMU offense had reached its peak in the regular season finales.
"We're opponent-to-opponent, week-to-week," Kyle said. "We need to make sure we're ready to get around the net and find pucks."
The 11 goals from nine players - junior forward Matt Thurber and senior forward Tyler Gron were the only two 'Cats to score both nights - were fueled by a defensive corp of two juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen that finished with two goals and 10 assists.
All six defensemen recorded points as sophomores Wade Epp and C.J. Ludwig and freshman Jake Baker each had an assist; junior Kyle Follmer and freshman Mitch Jones had a goal and assist; and Macaulay had five assists, including four on Saturday.
Macaulay said he was just matched with the right line, at the right time. However, senior and co-captain Justin Florek of Marquette was quick to stress the value of Macaulay and the defensemen's efforts at the blue line.
"As a forward, you hate to play against and cover an offensive defenseman," Florek said. "To have those guys on our team that can burn you wide and contribute on the offensive side of the game, it's really key for us and they'll continue to be a scoring threat."
After being shut out on the power play in two losses in Ann Arbor, NMU picked up three goals on the man advantage this weekend and two in 4-on-4 situations.
The 'Cats scored a pair of power play goals Saturday to take a 5-1 lead after two periods, however, NMU gave up a pair of shorthanded goals as well to let LSSU back in the game.
The shorties - NMU had one itself Friday by Thurber - were discouraging to Kyle because they came on plays the Wildcats will need to make if it hopes to return to the CCHA Championships at Joe Louis Arena and the NCAA tournament.
"(LSSU) did a great job, but we cheated," Kyle said. "We weren't aware and we had some bad turnovers.
"One turnover, we had a great play. It comes in, Follmer had a great opportunity, and it bounces over his stick. We have to make that play on the power play. You have to be able to catch that."
If not for NMU senior goaltender Reid Ellingson, the Lakers would have scored a third shorty and pulled within a goal midway through the third.
Ellingson was able to get a piece of the puck with the nub of his stick en route to making 33 saves in 59 minutes and 52.5 seconds of action.
The final 7.5 seconds of the game went to fellow senior Devan Hartigan, the third-string goaltender.
"(Ellingson's) last two starts have been outstanding," Kyle said. "He made a save on the shorty there. We let a guy get behind us. He made a great save there. That could have been a problem."
NMU led 2-1 after the first period via goals by Gron and freshman Ryan Daugherty. The 'Cats then pulled ahead 5-1 after the second period via goals by Jones, Thurber and Follmer.
"When we made a mistake, we paid for it and it was in the back of our net," LSSU head coach Jim Roque said.
LSSU, which was without an injured Domenic Monardo and suspended Kyle Jean, tied the game in the first period at 1-1 on a shorthanded goal by freshman Stephan Perfetto.
Sophomore Colin Campbell pulled LSSU within three scores 3:26 into the final period and senior Fred Cassiani then silenced the once rowdy Berry Events Center crowd - five NMU goals meant 50-percent off Dominos pizza for the second-straight night - 4:57 into the third on a shorthanded play.
Despite the shorthanded chances, Roque chalked the weekend up to karma just not being on the Lakers' side, especially since if LSSU had swept NMU, it still would have missed out on a first-round by in the CCHA playoffs anyways.
"We could have walked out more depressed tonight with a sweep and all it would have gotten us was Bowling Green," Roque said. "I guess we didn't use up the good karma, the good stuff.
"At least we didn't use up all our good bounces. At least I can say that."
Ferris State won the league title outright this weekend by taking one point from Western Michigan. The Broncos wound up third to Michigan, which split with Bowling Green. Miami finished fourth and will host fifth-place Michigan State in the second round.
Ohio State, which was the top team in the CCHA and PairWise on New Years Day, won only one game in 2012 during the regular season in regulation or overtime to finish ninth. The Buckeyes will travel to Notre Dame for a first-round series.
If Northern can get by BGSU, it will travel to Kalamazoo, where it lost a pair to Western back in Week 4.
"Our league has been so tight," Kyle said. "There is a group at the top, but everything else is up for grabs. Wins have been at a premium. We've been real fortunate to be good in this building (the Berry Events Center)."