MARQUETTE - After a dismal offensive season in 2010-11, the Northern Michigan University hockey team took steps in 2011-12 to climb out of the CCHA's scoring basement and into the middle of the pack.
NMU went from averaging 2.33 goals per game last season - good for 10th in the league - to 2.86 goals an outing this year, sixth best in the CCHA.
The only problem with the increased offensive output, however, was it only came from a select few.
Northern Michigan University senior forward Tyler Gron works his way with the puck around Bowling Green State defenseman Robert Shea in Game 2 of the best-of-three CCHA first-round playoff series at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
NMU junior forward Matt Thurber battles BGSU forward Ryan Carpenter in Game 2 off a faceoff. Gron led Northern in scoring with 17 goals and 20 assists while his linemate, Thurber, finished third in scoring with 11 goals and 19 assists. The Wildcats moved from 10th to sixth in overall scoring in the CCHA, however, a majority of the offense came only from the ’Cats top two lines. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
"One of the things I know was a factor was our depth," NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. "Our depth was not good. That was an issue."
Of the 106 goals scored by NMU in 2011-12 - up from 91 a year ago - 78 came from players who finished the season on the top two lines.
The NMU defensemen pitched in 16 goals, leaving 12 from the Wildcats' third and fourth liners if you count departed freshman forward Dylan Walchuk in that group - though one of his two goals in 19 games came while playing with seniors Justin Florek and Tyler Gron.
"If you take what it takes to be on a first line, on a second line, what a third-line guy is in the CCHA - our third line and fourth line were not where they needed to be to be a high-end team," Kyle said.
Florek led the Wildcats in goals with 19, teamed with senior Andrew Cherniwchan (10 goals) and sophomore Stephan Vigier (13 goals).
Those three, who were often on the ice as penalty killers and on the power play, finished with a team-high 42 goals as the undisputed top line for Northern in 2011-12.
"That line was good for us all year," Kyle said. "It was steady. Vigier overachieved. Cherny had a great year considering all the conditions. He had a hurt knee. He comes back, the whole year his father is sick. His father passes away, he still winds up scoring 10 goals missing nine games, playing several games hurt in a brace. I thought that line had a phenomenal year, really good there."
Kyle also got a lot of productivity from his second line of Gron, junior Matt Thurber and redshirt freshman Reed Seckel, at least at home.
Gron led NMU in scoring with 17 goals and 20 assists for 37 points - one more point than Florek.
Seckel posted eight goals and 12 assists while Thurber ratcheted up his goal total late to be more than just an assist man, finishing with 11 goals and 19 assists.
Of the 36 goals scored by Thurber, Gron and Seckel, however, only eight came on the road - one by Seckel, four by Thurber and three by Gron.
"Thurber's line was a very good line at home, and a very disappointing line on the road," Kyle said. "They also did not get a point in this playoff series as a line. Down the stretch, they were not there. The guys who are coming back there, that's got to change for them."
Thurber scored nine of his 11 goals after New Year's Day, including a hat trick at home against Alaska on Jan. 7, the same night Cherniwchan scored one in a 7-3 victory. Prior to New Year's, Thurber had two goals and 11 assists in his first 19 games with NMU since sitting out a season after transferring from Wisconsin.
Thurber credited he and Seckel's rise - the redshirt freshman had four goals and eight assists after New Year's - to the addition of Gron midway through the year.
However, Thurber said he and Seckel must step it up next year and learn how to not only win on the road, but battle through tougher defensive matchups thrown their way.
"Matchups were a big part of it, but we have a big rink here and a lot of the rinks we play in on the road are smaller rinks," Thurber said. "We didn't have as much time and space to do things, which definitely was a lot different."
Kyle plans on bringing in up to five forwards next season, but like every year, expects his offense to grown from within.
"Freshmen are freshmen. We need guys here," Kyle said. "That's where your growth has to come from, just like it did before."
Kyle is expecting players like Thurber and Seckel to make the jump to being 15-goal scorers, and the same for Vigier to replace what will be lost from Gron, Florek and Cherniwchan.
Vigier posted three goals and nine assists in what he called a disappointing freshman year. Now he'll look to build on the 13-goal, 13-assist effort he put forth this year as a sophomore.
"I need to come in next year a little stronger, come in with a lot of confidence and that's probably the biggest thing for me - playing with confidence and knowing I can put the puck in the net when we need it," Vigier said.
Kyle said he'd also like to see more goal production from a healthy Erik Higby, who scored only two goals as a sophomore with injured ribs after posting five as a freshman.
Another player who stepped up late was freshman forward Ryan Daugherty, with three goals and two assists in his last seven games after posting only an assist in his first 23 collegiate games.
"Ryan Daugherty emerged as the year went and was arguably one of our best players down the last 6-8 games," Kyle said. "You can look at his point totals, but more importantly, watch him play. He was a force and a factor for us every night."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.