Northern Michigan University Wildcat hockey team needs more improvement to reach WCHA playoffs

Northern Michigan University’s Darien Craighead looks for a teammate in the offensive zone against Alaska-Anchorage on Jan. 20 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Jess Makela)

MARQUETTE — Time is running out on the Northern Michigan University hockey team, but the Wildcats are definitely making some noise. Not just in the WCHA, but nationally as well.

Northern (9-17-4 overall, 7-12-3 WCHA) is on a four-game winning streak and is coming off a road sweep of Bowling Green State. The Wildcats also have not lost since Jan. 6, a span of seven games, and sit just two points behind Alabama-Huntsville in the league standings for the eighth and final position for the playoffs.

Even though NMU seems to be rolling right now, head coach Walt Kyle isn’t getting too excited.

“I’m certainly feeling better than I was earlier, but we know what we need to do,” he said. “We’re not in a playoff spot yet. If we get in, it’ll be a fresh start, but we just need to keep moving ahead.”

What should get them excited is the play of goaltender Atte Tolvanen. The sophomore netminder has racked up three straight shutouts and given up just three goals in his last six games. His impressive performances last weekend earned him WCHA Defensive Player of the Week and a nickname from senior teammate Brock Maschmeyer.

“It’s great to see Atte come along in the second half,” Maschmeyer said. “He’s looking like the Carey Price (goalie for Montreal Canadiens) of the WCHA. He’s just doing awesome and not only is he doing well, but so is the team.”

Tolvanen however, shrugs off his accolades and focuses more on remaining locked in for the Wildcats’ late playoff run.

“I didn’t have a very good first half and it feels good to help get the team going in the second half,” he said. “What counts the most is making the playoffs and it’s nice that we’re moving toward that.”

To finish off its rally, Northern has to take care of business at home this weekend against Alaska-Fairbanks. The Nanooks (9-16-3, 8-11-3) are trying to hold on to the No. 5 seed for the playoffs as well as trying to catch Bowling Green for the last home spot in the first round.

Fairbanks is led by winger Marcus Basara and center Chad Staley, both with eight goals and 18 points, but other than that, the Nanooks are weak offensively, ranked 49th of 60 in the nation in scoring.

Fairbanks has a decent defensive corps, led by 17-point man Zach Frye, but a less-than-stellar goaltending tandem in Jesse Jenks and Davis Jones.

With NMU getting hot, this could be a great weekend to gain ground in the standings as Huntsville has to deal with conference leader Bemidji State, which could wrap up the MacNaughton Cup with a win Friday.

However, the Wildcats continue to be focused on what they have to do and not on anyone else.

“The message that we’re sending to our guys and that we’re going to continue to send is to stay in the moment and not get caught up in anything right now,” Kyle said. “We still have a long way to go and a lot of season left. Every game is equally critical and every point is too. We just have to respect the process and that’s all we’re telling them right now.”

After this weekend are just two more series in the regular season, at Minnesota State-Mankato on Feb. 17-18 and home and home against Michigan Tech, in Marquette on Feb. 24 and in Houghton on Feb. 25.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.