Hope springs eternal

NMU?icers get needed breather before heading to Florida tourney

MARQUETTE — Battered and beaten, the Northern Michigan University hockey team limped into the holiday break plagued with injuries and a lack of goal scoring.

Now the second half of the season begins with a great opportunity for the Wildcats (4-14-2 overall, 2-11-1 WCHA) to get on track.

After finishing third at the Great Lakes Invitational between Christmas and New Year’s Day last year, Northern will compete in a different holiday tournament this season.

Next week, Northern takes part in the Florida College Hockey Classic for the second time. The Wildcats won the tournament in 2001 with goaltender Craig Kowalski earning MVP honors.

The FCHC doesn’t have the national prestige of the GLI, but it’s one of the more well-known college hockey tournaments in the country and the team looks forward to the opportunity.

“I think it’s a great deal for us,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “Holiday tournaments are always fun and you should be in a tournament every year if you can.

“I haven’t been to this tournament before, but (former head coach) Rick (Comley) has. He took the team down there a few years ago and I heard that it’s a good event.

“People think it’s a good time of year to go to Florida, but we’re not going to see anything but the hotel and the rink.”

The players may not be partying on the beach next week, but there’s a good chance they’ll be feeling good on the trip back to Marquette. Just like the GLI last year, the FCHC has a wide-open field ready for the taking.

The Wildcats open up with tournament host Cornell at 4:05 p.m. Wednesday. The Big Red (7-3-1) has won five in a row and seven of its last eight contests. Cornell is also known for shutting down opposing offenses, sitting ninth in the nation in total defense and fifth overall on the penalty kill.

That doesn’t bode well for the Wildcats, who have had a difficult time scoring all season.

A positive, though, is that Cornell’s offense isn’t particularly strong. Mitch Vanderlaan is the Big Red’s leader with seven goals and 12 points, but he and Trevor Yates are the Big Red’s only true scoring threats. If the Wildcats can keep those two under control and manage a couple of goals, a win is a possibility.

The other semifinal on Wednesday evening pits Colorado College and Merrimack, with Northern taking on one of those teams Thursday, either in the 4:05 p.m. consolation or 7:35 p.m. championship.

The latter two teams are beatable opponents that struggle in all areas of the game. Merrimack (6-8-3) was most recently swept by No. 7 Massachusetts-Lowell and just like Cornell, the Warriors have only two scoring threats in Brett Seney (14 points) and Hampus Gustafsson (13).

CC may be one of the few teams in the country that has gotten off to a worse start than the Wildcats. The Tigers (3-12-1) haven’t won since Nov. 4 and are on a nine-game winless streak. CC also has just one scorer who is in the double digits points-wise (Mason Bergh, 10) and starting goalie Alex Leclerc has an awful 3.97 goals against average and a .869 saves percentage.

Even though the Wildcats’ opponents aren’t all that good, Kyle isn’t thinking this will be a cakewalk.

“Right now any win is good for us,” he said. “People look at our record and are thinking the same thing about us.

“We need to find our game and this is a good time for a break. We can come back from that and have a couple of games to get our house in order.”

Heading into NMU’s last series, it appeared the Wildcats might notch that elusive first win at home and even a sweep. But Alabama-Huntsville kept NMU’s offense on lockdown and outscored the Wildcats 7-2 over the weekend to take both games.

After that disappointment, the Wildcats have to put forth a strong second half if they have any hope of making the WCHA playoffs. To do that, Northern has to find a way to put pucks in the net on a consistent basis and they have an excellent chance to do that at the FCHC.

“I’m disappointed with the result of the (Alabama-Huntsville) series and we’re all disappointed with the first half of the season,” Kyle said. “I think the best thing for us is to hopefully get a break here and then they can come back, feel better about themselves and be more confident. That could keep them from being quite as tight.

“We want to have success and we want to get in the playoffs. We just need to play hard, do the best that we can and put some pucks in the net.”

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