MARQUETTE - When Northern Michigan University head hockey coach Walt Kyle spoke of the Wildcats' challenging start to CCHA play in preseason interviews and Blue Line Club functions, he wasn't referring to beginning league play against three of the nation's top 10 teams.
He was referring to the back-to-back road trips the 'Cats must make over the next two weeks to Oxford and Columbus, Ohio.
"That's high-level hockey," NMU junior goaltender Jared Coreau said. "Guys in the NHL, yeah, they fly, but they get jet lag. It's high-level hockey and that's things you have to battle through."
Northern Michigan University senior captain and defenseman Scott Macaulay brings the puck up the ice against Michigan on Saturday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
The No. 16-ranked Wildcats make the first of two 600-plus mile bus trips to the Buckeye State this weekend to play No. 5 Miami at 7:35 p.m. on Friday and 7:05 p.m. on Saturday at the Goggin Ice Center in Oxford.
Next week, NMU hops right back on the bus to play at Ohio State, which unlike the RedHawks, Notre Dame Fighting Irish or Michigan Wolverines, are not ranked in the top 10 of either poll, or ranked period for that matter.
"I think it's great from the perspective that when you play good teams like that, you're forced to be at your best if you don't want to get embarrassed," Kyle said. "When you're at your best, you grow quicker."
Neither journey to Oxford or Columbus compares to the Wildcats' Week 2 voyage to Omaha, Neb., though that trip was sandwiched between a series in Green Bay - just a three-hour jog from Marquette - and the home opener against the Irish.
The Wildcats were decimated by Nebraska-Omaha on the first night of the 700-plus-mile trip, 5-2, before winning on Saturday, 2-1.
Coreau admitted the team may have had a bad case of bus legs in the loss to UNO, but it proved to be a valuable learning experience heading into the first two road trips of CCHA play for Northern.
"The big thing is when you get off the bus, the guys have to do all the right things, maybe get the right food, get hydrated and stay hydrated on the bus." said Coreau, who has a 2.94 goals against average and .903 save percentage in eight games. "That's the physical part of it.
"Mentally, you know that it's a bit of an advantage for Miami, but as Walt always says, 'The legs feed the wolf.' It's going to burn, but the guys can work through it."
For this weekend's trip to Oxford, NMU is using a similar two-day travel plan as it did with the drive to Omaha.
The team left Wednesday evening aboard a sleeper bus rather than a traditional coach bus and spent the night in Gaylord. This morning, the team departs on the second leg of the trip, arriving in Oxford this afternoon.
Following the final buzzer on Saturday night, the team will drive approximately 12-hours straight back to Marquette before doing it all over again three days later, but instead to Columbus.
Kyle said the team will leave some players back in Marquette each week who he plans to use in a fourth-line or sixth-defenseman roll so the team has fresh legs.
Meanwhile those who are planning to make both trips, like senior captain and defenseman Scott Macaulay, will take advantage of escaping college life's distractions.
"The older guys, we've been around, we've done this trip. We're used to it," Macaulay said. "The thing to remind the younger guys is you have to take advantage of the rest you have. It's always important when you get down time and the chance to relax. You really have to take advantage of that."
The Wildcats sit two points back of the RedHawks after being swept by then No. 9 Notre Dame and taking four of six points from previously No. 8-ranked Michigan via a shootout loss and victory.
Senior Matt Thurber not only leads the Wildcats in scoring and assists, but he leads the CCHA in both categories as well with the one goal coming against his former school of Wisconsin and 10 assists coming in all but one game he's appeared in.
Meanwhile two-time CCHA Rookie of the Week Cohen Adair, a freshman forward, leads NMU in scoring with five goals while sophomore forwards Reed Seckel and Ryan Daugherty each sit at four goal.
Miami, which went 1-3 against NMU last year, split each of its two weekends of CCHA play against Michigan in Ann Arbor and Ferris State in Big Rapids.
The RedHawks, who will join the NCHC after this season, opened 2012-13 with a nonconference sweep of Colgate and a win and tie against Providence.
Sophomore forward Austin Czarnik and freshman forward Riley Barber lead the RedHawks in scoring at 10 points each with Czarnik posting five goals and Barber scoring four. Two of Czarnik's goals have come shorthanded while Barber leads all CCHA freshmen in scoring.
Freshman goaltender Jay Williams has started all six games for Miami, giving up an average of 2.70 goals per night with a save percentage of .910.
"Miami is a really dangerous team with some really top-end offensive guys," Kyle said. "You have to contain their top people and make sure you don't give them a lot of special teams chances or odd-man situation."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.