MANKATO, Minn. - The Northern Michigan University hockey team stepped onto the ice in Mankato, Minn., on Saturday night with its season on the line following Friday's 3-2 loss to Minnesota State in Game 1 of a best-of-three WCHA playoff series against the Mavericks.
The No. 7 seeded Wildcats played with desperation and gave second-seeded MSU all it could handle, sending the game to overtime tied 4-4 as NMU tried to avoid a first-round exit for the fourth straight season.
But it was not to be as Zach Stepan scored at 16:32 of overtime to bring Northern Michigan's season to a sudden end with a 5-4 loss. Meanwhile, Minnesota State heads to next weekend's WCHA Final Five at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids. The Wildcats finish the season with an overall record of 15-21-2.
Northern Michigan University's Darren Nowick, left, shoots past Minnesota State University defender Carter Foguth, right, as MSU goalie Cole Huggins looks on during the first period Saturday of Game 2 of a WCHA tournament series at the Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato, Minn. (Mankato Free Press photo by Pat Christman)
NMU redshirt freshman goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom thought he had control of MSU's Zach Palmquist's shot in overtime, but the puck squirted out from under the rookie net minder and trickled through the crease where Stepan pounced on it much to the joy of the 2,503 in attendance at Verizon Wireless Center.
"I'm disappointed in the loss, but I'm really proud of our effort," Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle said. "I thought we played really well and took a step tonight."
The Wildcats led on four occasions, but each time the Mavericks had an answer, twice on its lethal power-play, which produced a pair on Friday as well.
NMU's power-play unit was even more efficient, scoring twice in its two chances on third-period goals by senior forward Stephan Vigier and freshman defenseman Brock Maschmeyer.
Kyle said he's proud of the effort he received from his players against what he called a very good Minnesota State team.
"You have to always be aware of their offense and their skills," Kyle said. "And we knew we kind of had to wait for some chances and take advantage of our power plays, which we did, but at the end of the day we weren't able to kill penalties this weekend and it really cost us."
Dahlstrom was outstanding in making 53 saves, including 40 in regulation, while the Wildcats received primary scoring from secondary scorers Jake Johnson, a senior forward, and Ryan Kesti, a junior forward.
Both fourth liners are Minnesota natives.
"Our fourth line was outstanding," Kyle said. "I just don't think we got enough from our top guys, the key guys in the lineup. If you're gonna win, you've got to get more from those guys, although the effort was there."
The Wildcats struck first at 7:18 of the first period courtesy of that timely fourth-line scoring as a pair of Minnesota natives returned home to give Northern Michigan its first lead.
Kesti picked the pocket of Minnesota State's Max Gaede just inside the Mavericks' zone and the junior center got off a shot MSU goaltender Cole Huggins denied. But the rebound popped right to the stick of Johnson, who buried just his third of the year for a 1-0 Northern Michigan lead.
Despite being heavily outshot in the period, the Wildcats had plenty of offensive zone time, but had difficulty pulling the trigger at times due to the Mavericks defensive pressure.
The Mavericks were given the man advantage at the 14:23 mark when junior forward Ryan Daugherty went off for hooking. But Dahlstrom stopped six MSU shots, including back-to-back threats by Matt Leitner and Jonnny McInnis to keep the Mavs off the board.
Northern Michigan appeared poised to head into the dressing room after the first period with a 1-0 lead and was inches from a two-goal cushion at the break, but the Mavericks snuffed out both scenarios in a heartbeat.
With the clock winding down on the period, Daugherty's point-blank opportunity was thwarted on a shot Huggins likely didn't even see. MSU's Bryce Gervais corralled the rebound and fed Matt Leitner, who split the Wildcats' defense before roofing a backhand over Dahlstrom for his 11th of the season at 19:59.
But the Wildcats regained the lead just minutes later when Kesti's shot from above the left circle beat Huggins high to his glove side giving him four tallies on the year.
McInnis answered at the 14-minute mark and the teams were knotted again after two.
NMU and MSU combined for four goals and 25 shots in the final period, but were unable break the deadlock in regulation.