Northern Michigan University Wildcats hockey team fighting to stay alive in WCHA playoff hunt

Northern Michigan University’s Robbie Payne, right, is pursued by Alaska-Anchorage’s Nolan Nicholas on Jan. 21 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — It’s officially gut-check time.

After a bye week, the Northern Michigan University hockey team (7-17-4, 5-12-3 WCHA) heads to Bowling Green State (14-15-2, 12-11-1) this weekend as the Wildcats try to climb the league standings and get the eighth and last playoff spot.

Northern is tied for ninth place with Alaska-Anchorage and is five points behind eighth-place Alabama-Huntsville.

After a sweep of the Seawolves, the bye week could either kill whatever momentum the Wildcats have built up from that series or be a beneficial rest stop for the push to the end of the regular season.

“I think when you have a little bit of success, especially with the start that we’ve had this year, you don’t really want to take a bye,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “You’re excited to get going and keep things rolling.

“Having said that though, there’s always some fatigue in the second half of the year. We have some guys who are banged up, so it was good for those guys to get a rest.

“Right now, we’re right back at it and hopefully, we’ll keep the momentum that we built.”

NMU can’t afford to be swept by the Falcons this weekend if they want to keep their slim postseason hopes alive. That could be hard to avoid as BGSU took two games from the Wildcats at the Berry Events Center earlier this seaosn, pumping in 10 goals in the series.

BGSU was the preseason favorite to win the WCHA, and although it won’t accomplish that feat, the Falcons are trying to move into third place this weekend as they sit one point behind Minnesota State.

The Falcons have four players with more than 20 points, including leader Mitch McLain with 28 and Philadelphia Flyers prospect Mark Friedman. BGSU is also solid on the defensive end with goaltender Chris Nell, who holds a 2.52 goals against average and .897 saves percentage.

So things could be difficult for the offensively challenged Wildcats even with senior forward Dominik Shine on a tear lately.

“I’ve spent some time looking at the first series and the first night … I think the shots were 7-7 and we were down 3-0 in the first,” Kyle said of the mid-November series against the Falcons. “The second night, we outshot then 14-4 in the first and we were down 2-0.

“Our start is going to be very important and goaltending will be important. I don’t think our goaltending was very good that series.

“The other thing right now is with Dom’s improved play and the play of his line, we have some secondary scoring. I think teams are going to have to be a little bit more aware of what we’re capable of and a little less eager to press us.”

The majority of NMU’s remaining games are on the road, which could be difficult for some teams. However, the Wildcats have played better away from the BEC this year, so it could help.

“I don’t think that bother us really,” Kyle said.

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