MARQUETTE - Despite just six wins overall and being tied for eighth in the 10-team WCHA at the holiday break, Northern Michigan University head hockey coach Walt Kyle is optimistic about the second half of the Wildcats' season.
Having played the least amount of games in the first half of the season, Northern has the most conference games remaining (18), with only Alaska - also in eighth - playing more home games, 10-9, than the 'Cats (6-10-2 overall, 4-5-1 in WCHA).
Northern went 4-2-1 at home overall during the first half, including 3-1-1 against conference opponents with the loss and tie coming against the No. 2-ranked team in the country - league leaders Ferris State.
The Northern Michigan University hockey team celebrates a goal against Alabama-Huntsville on Nov. 23 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal file photo)
On the road, NMU only won twice at 2-8-1 overall and 1-4-0 in WCHA play.
In the second half, the 'Cats host Alaska (Jan. 17-18), Minnesota State (Jan. 31-Feb. 1), Lake Superior State (Feb. 14-15), Michigan Tech (Feb. 22) and Bowling Green (Feb. 28-March 1) with road trips to Bemidji State, Alaska-Anchorage, Ferris, Tech and Alabama-Huntsville.
Outside of the Bulldogs, second-place MSU and last-place UAH, the rest of the league is within five points of the Wildcats with BSU, BGSU and UAA playing four less conference games in the second half than NMU.
"I think we're in a decent spot in our league right now," Kyle said. "Those are all catchable teams right there."
Kyle said the key in the second half is to win close games, something the Wildcats struggled with in the first half.
In games decided by one goal, or two because of an empty net score, NMU is 3-5. Both ties were comebacks NMU failed to finish.
"In my opinion, we've had some really bright moments in the first half," Kyle said. "I thought our 1-1 game against Ferris was a good moment. I thought our weekend in Alaska was overall a really, really good effort. I thought the Huntsville weekend was a good weekend for us. That's a difficult team to keep your focus on.
"I was disappointed in our performance at Tech. I was disappointed in our performance at Minnesota State. Those are the bad ones. We're going to see what we're made of in the second half."
Below are grades handed out by Kyle prior to Christmas for the forwards, defensemen, goaltenders and special teams, with his overall grade at the end.
While giving the group a C- as a whole, Kyle actually had two different grades for his forwards, giving them a B for their performance defensively this season, but a D for their offensive output.
Prior to this weekend's holiday tournaments, NMU's scoring offense ranked eighth in the WCHA averaging 2.17 goals per game, but the defense is holding opponents to 2.56 goals per game, good for fourth in the WCHA.
"Defensively as a group they've done a really good job," Kyle said. "They've been really conscious of the game defensively, they've forechecked well, they've pursued pretty well. They've done a lot of those things I think really well."
Senior Stephan Vigier leads the Wildcats in scoring with a team-high 10 goals and five assists, which was good for 10th in the WCHA in points and a tie for third in goals at Christmas. His six power play goals ranked second in the league.
After Vigier there is a big drop off, though, with junior Reed Seckel as the second-leading goal scorer for the 'Cats with half as many tallies, plus two assists.
Kyle said Vigier has put together a special start and Seckel, who missed the first five games of the season with an undisclosed upper body injury, has been adequate.
Senior Erik Higby - who has missed seven games with an injured wrist - junior Ryan Daugherty and sophomore Darren Nowick were all expected to have greater offensive impacts, according to Kyle. Together, the three have totaled just six goals and 13 assists.
"Higby is below what we projected him, Daugherty is below what we projected him, Nowick is well below where we projected him," Kyle said. "Those are guys we thought would take a step offensively for us. They haven't at this point."
The Wildcats suffered a major blow on the blue line 13 games into the season when senior captain C.J. Ludwig was lost for the season with a right knee injury, suffered on Nov. 29 in a home loss to Ferris.
At the time, Ludwig ranked second in the WCHA in scoring amongst defensemen with five goals and seven assists. His four power play goals was tied for fourth overall in the league.
As of Christmas, those numbers still ranked toward the top of the league at seventh in scoring and fifth in power play goals.
Ludwig's 12 points still ranks second on the Wildcats in scoring behind Vigier.
"Without Ludwig, we lose a huge offensive threat back there," said Kyle. "He's developed into a really high-end offensive threat and now we don't have that back there."
Despite the loss of Ludwig, Kyle still called the group solid with junior Mitch Jones fourth on the team in scoring with no goals, but 10 assists.
Of the seven defensemen to have played on a regular basis in the first half, Ludwig, Jones and senior Wade Epp all sport positive plus/minus ratings while junior Jake Baker, junior Luke Eibler, sophomore Barrett Kaib and freshman Brock Maschmeyer - who played as a forward until Ludwig's injury - sit between minus-4 and minus-6.
"I think that's been a pretty good group for us," Kyle said. "Our goals against have been pretty good. In the last six (games), we're having to re-identify that group a little bit without Ludwig. With Ludwig it's a great group. Without Ludwig, it's a solid group."
Northern's least-experienced position heading into 2013-14 has been its best in the first half, according to Kyle.
Redshirt freshman Mathias Dahlstrom, who hadn't started a game in 539 days prior to the season, ranked fourth in the WCHA with a 2.25 goals against average and .925 save percentage heading into the weekend with three shutouts in his 15 starts.
"I think Mathias has had a hell of a freshmen year," Kyle said. "Mathias out of our hockey team right now has been the brightest spot."
Dahlstrom is 5-8-2 this season in his 15 starts after splitting time early with sophomore Michael Doan, who went 1-2-0 with a 3.86 goals against average and .863 save percentage before getting injured.
True freshman Derek Dun has appeared in one game, relieving Dahlstrom for the final 18 minutes and 27 seconds of a 4-1 loss to Ferris at home. Dun stopped all eight shots he faced in the third period.
Power Play: B
The Wildcats' biggest loss on defense was its biggest loss on special teams, specifically on the power play.
Ludwig was not only one of Northern's biggest threats on the man advantage, he was also the quarterback.
That role has now fallen to Maschmeyer, who has scored both his goals this season on the power play.
"We have a freshman now quarterbacking our power play," Kyle said. "There's a big difference between Brock and Ludwig. Brock is adequate, but he's not Ludwig."
NMU's power play ranked fourth in the WCHA at Christmas, converting 20.7 percent of the time.
Since Ludwig went down for the year, however, NMU has only scored on three of its 19 power plays, or 15.8 percent of the time.
Still, Kyle said the power play had a positive first half, especially considering the team's struggles scoring five-on-five, with 18 of the team's 39 goals coming on power plays.
"We're doing that with a team that doesn't have a lot of five-on-five offense," Kyle said. "They've done a really good job and much improved from a year ago."
Penalty Kill: D
The Wildcats are not only struggling to stay out of the penalty box, but kill those penalties as well.
Northern's average of 16.4 penalty minutes per game was tied with Alaska for third in the league with MSU (17.1) and Michigan Tech (17.4) the only teams spending more time in hockey's sin bin in the first half.
Leading the penalty parade this year for NMU has been a pair of forwards - Daugherty (12 penalties, 35 minutes) and Seckel (18-58) - while Epp leads the defensemen in penalties with 12 for 27 minutes, having avoided majors and misconducts better than Daugherty and Seckel.
As for killing penalties, Northern was eighth in the league going into the weekend with a 79.5 success rate.
"Probably the worst area, the weakest area on our team right now," Kyle said about the PK. "It's an area we need to get a lot better in, an area we've been spending a lot of time on."
Kyle said the team was bad on the penalty kill even before Ludwig was lost for the year, mainly because the team put itself in too many two-man disadvantages.
Four of the team's 18 goals allowed on the penalty kill have come down two men, but Kyle said he's seen improvement in that area.
"A lot of the guys we were using to kill were putting us down 5-on-3," Kyle said.
"The first quarter of the year we did that. We've gotten away from that and since then, we've seen improvement."