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NMU struggles to evaluate season as a whole after playoff loss to BGSU

March 20, 2012
By MATT WELLENS - Journal Sports Editor ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - The PairWise rankings, which is the mathematical system used to determine and seed the NCAA hockey tournament, weighs every game equally, no matter when and where it was played.

The system measures a team's season as a whole, and doesn't throw all its weight on one game, treating the first 10 games the same as the last or the championship game of a conference tournament the same as a season opener.

Northern Michigan University head coach Walt Kyle would like to evaluate his team's 2011-12 season the same as the PairWise rankings do - even if he is a bigger fan of the alternate ratings system called KRACH that typically ranks his Wildcats higher.

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Above, the Bowling Green State Falcons celebrate a CCHA first-round playoff upset of Northern Michigan following Game 3 at the Berry Events Center on March 4. The Falcons would go on to upset Ferris State before losing to Michigan at Joe Louis Arena in the semifinals of the CCHA tournament. (Journal file photo by Matt Keiser)

There's one problem this season for Kyle and the 'Cats when it comes to ranking the season as a whole.

That problem is with how it all came crashing down, with a loss to Bowling Green State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs for a second-consecutive season.

"I'm really disappointed with the playoffs," Kyle said. "Myself and the players can't lean on any excuses there. We did not get the job done at a really critical time and with where we were able to put ourselves nationally, to not be able to finish that in the playoffs, it's probably my biggest disappointment since I've been here."

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The Wildcats were not only on the verge of reaching the second round of the CCHA playoffs on March 3, but they were sitting on the doorstep of a second NCAA tournament berth in three years.

Northern led Bowling Green State 1-0 in the best of three series and was up 3-1 three minutes in the second period of Game 2. The Falcons went on to score four unanswered goals to tie the series at 1-1 and then responded to a 1-0 second-period deficit in Game 3 with four unanswered goals to clinch the series.

The Falcons, who finished in last place in the CCHA during the regular season, went on to beat Ferris State in three games to reach Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, where Michigan needed double overtime to dispose of BGSU.

Northern, on the other hand, sat and watched for two weeks in hopes of still sneaking into the NCAA tournament, but losses by Cornell and Air Force on Saturday evening doused those dreams.

"The sourest thing was this playoff series and what it meant," Kyle said less than 24 hours after losing to BGSU. "I'll never get over it. I'm extremely bitter about it."

The Wildcats finished 17-14-6 overall after going 15-19-5 a year ago to end the season tied for 15th in the PairWise rankings with Merrimack and Michigan State with each team's ratings percentage index score being the tiebreaker.

NMU beat out Merrimack by seven ten-thousandths of a percentage point, but Michigan State topped them all. The Spartans were the last team in the NCAA tournament field while the Wildcats were the last team out.

"I look back and all I see is that loss to Bowling Green," NMU senior captain Justin Florek said. "If you look at the big picture, if you look past that, I think everyone will see a good season. We lost four games at home all season, which is really a great accomplishment."

NMU was a stellar 11-4-5 at the Berry Events Center this season with only two losses in regular season play to Michigan State and CCHA champion Ferris State.

The Wildcats were a different team on the road, however, finishing 6-10-1. NMU started the year 2-6 away from Marquette before finishing 4-4-1 after Jan. 1.

The 'Cats swept Lake Superior State in the final weekend of the regular season at home to finish sixth in the league with 42 points - one ahead of seventh-place LSSU and five back of fifth-place MSU.

"I'm not totally pleased with our regular season, where we finished," Kyle said. "I thought our road record hurt us there, but also in evaluating, we were in a good cluster, which helped us NCAA-wise, but hurt us league-wise. I'm OK with that."

That cluster of LSSU, MSU, Miami and Michigan is what helped propel NMU in the national computer rankings - the human polls mostly ignored the Wildcats, who reappeared at No. 20 in this week's USCHO poll after two weeks off.

NMU went 3-1-0 against both Miami and Lake Superior State, but 1-2-1 against both the Spartans and Wolverines.

Northern took the Wolverines - who are the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tourney - to overtime twice, resulting in a 3-3 tie in Marquette and a 3-2 loss in Ann Arbor.

In addition to the six ties, NMU was involved in 16 games decided by a goal or a goal plus an empty netter. In those 16 games, NMU finished 8-8 with two overtime losses and a lone OT win at Wisconsin to start the year. Four losses and two wins involved an empty netter to pad the score.

"I think there was a huge improvement for our team from a year ago," Kyle said. "When you look at the wins and losses, if you look at the PairWise and if you look at where we were a year ago, to where we are now, we're a top 20 team in the country. I'm real pleased with that growth."

While turning any one of those ties or close losses could have put NMU into the NCAA tournament, no season series turned out to matter more than the one with Michigan State. In the end, it turned out to be the most important series, even though it was the playoff loss to BGSU that nailed the 'Cats coffin shut.

No series was closer than the one with the Spartans. MSU won the opener in Marquette on Nov. 18 4-2 via an empty net goal as the extra cushion before NMU took Game 2, 2-1.

In East Lansing, the Wildcats and Spartans played to a 5-5 tie in Game 3 before MSU won the season series with a 2-1 win in Game 4.

Had Northern turned one of those ties, or better yet one of the closes losses, into a win, it would be the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament playing ECAC champion Union in Bridgeport on Friday instead of MSU.

"It kills all of us that we went out that way," NMU junior forward Matt Thurber said. "Overall I thought we had a pretty good year. We let some games slip away that we shouldn't have that cost us right now as well. We just have to come back together next year and have a game plan to not let this happen."

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-288-2500, ext. 252.



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