MARQUETTE - In six games without senior center Matt Thurber, plus a seventh game in which he only played 54 seconds, the Northern Michigan University hockey team went 1-5-1, was outscored 19-11 and got shutout twice.
Now the Wildcats enter the postseason without Thurber again after he broke his right leg during a practice Tuesday leading up to a CCHA best-of-three first-round playoff series against Michigan at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor.
Only this time, head coach Walt Kyle said his squad is much better equipped to handle the loss of a playmaker like Thurber, who leads the team in scoring with 32 points on six goals and 26 assists.
Northern Michigan University senior center Matt Thurber looks to make a pass in a No. 9 game against Miami at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. Thurber's collegiate career is over after he broke his right leg Tuesday during practice at Lakeview Arena in Marquette. (Journal file photo by Zach Jay)
"I think we're a lot better," Kyle said. "When that happened early in the year, Darren Nowick was out of our lineup. Jake Baker was out of our lineup. Reed Seckel and Stephan Vigier were in and out of our lineup. (Mitch) Jones was playing defense. (Erik) Higby was banged up. We had guys in and out and we were in a real banged up stretch when that happened."
Thurber assisted on five goals against Michigan during a regular season meeting on Nov. 2-3 in Marquette. Michigan won on Nov. 2 in a shootout following a 4-4 tie before NMU won Nov. 3 in regulation, 4-3.
Now the Wildcats' top set-up man is gone after going down early in Tuesday's practice at Lakeview Arena, which like Yost has an NHL-size ice sheet rather than the Olympic-size rink housed at the Berry Events Center. He slammed his right leg into the boards and had to be helped off the ice and out of the arena visibly in pain.
Thurber, who transferred to NMU in 2010 from Wisconsin, announced Tuesday night on his Twitter account (twitter.com/Thurbs12) that his leg was broken and his collegiate hockey was officially over.
"You lose a good offensive catalyst," Kyle said. "He's certainly a real dynamic guy offensively. He has the real ability to make some plays and he really helps his linemates. It's a big loss for us."
Seckel, a sophomore forward, and Higby, a junior forward, are the two wings that have been benefiting from Thurber's league-leading 26 assists.
Seckel scored a team-high 13 goals during the regular season, plus 12 assists, while Higby is third in scoring among his Wildcat teammates behind his two linemates with 21 points on nine goals and 12 assists.
While Seckel has been a consistent scoring threat all season playing alongside Thurber, Higby struggled to score in the first half of 2012-13.
Since joining Thurber and Seckel at St. Cloud State in the first series of 2013, Higby has scored seven goals and eight assists.
"It's kind of been a roller coaster ride," said Higby, who was a center prior to teaming with Seckel and Thurber. "Without Thurber, we were struggling. The whole thing before Christmas was pretty bad. After Christmas we turned everything around. We just started having success and more confidence in the room. Hopefully we can keep that going in the playoffs."
During Wednesday's practice, Higby remained at wing opposite Seckel with Jones at center. Jones has some familiarity playing with Seckel and Higby having worked with them on the power play.
Kyle said he will look at a number of other options, including moving Higby back to center while Nowick, a freshman, or Vigier, a junior, play wing opposite of Seckel.
Higby said he would prefer to stay at wing, however, because of the success he's had there as opposed to center.
"We wish we had (Thurber) and its going to be a little different, but we can't really change our game," Higby said. "Hopefully Jones can step in and take Thurber's spot. Hopefully we can still have success."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens