MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University junior goaltender Jared Coreau and Western Michigan University sophomore netminder Frank Slubowski came into the 2012-13 season as two of the most highly touted goaltenders in the CCHA, with the Bronco netminder being named to the preseason all-league first team.
Just over a third of the way through the season, however, the numbers for both have been average and both teams are fighting to climb out of the bottom half of the CCHA.
The ninth-place and unranked Wildcats trail the seventh-place and 10th-ranked Broncos by a single point in the league standings heading into Friday and Saturday's 7 p.m. games at Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo.
Northern Michigan University junior goaltender Jared Coreau awaits his name to be called during pregame warmups on Friday at the Berry Events Center against Alaska. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
Northern (5-6-3 overall, 2-5-3 in CCHA) is knotted up with Michigan State at 10 points after picking up an overtime win and shootout victory last week at home against Alaska.
Western (6-3-1, 3-2-1) is locked with Michigan at 11 points after taking the Thanksgiving weekend off. The Broncos split with the Nanooks in Fairbanks on Nov. 16-17, the last time they took the ice.
"We play a very good Western Michigan team this weekend in their building," said NMU head coach Walt Kyle, who has seen his team lose its last four games to WMU, all at Lawson. "It will be a much more difficult task than we had last weekend in our building."
Like the two teams in the standings, not much is separating Coreau and Slubowski early on.
Coreau sports the ninth- best saves percentage in the CCHA at .908, the 11th-best goals against average at 2.89 in 14 games and a league-leading 829 minutes, 26 seconds.
Slubowski is stopping .905 percent of his shots, good for 10th in the league, and allowing 2.40 goals per game, good for ninth, in 10 games and 550:44.
Last season, both were in the top half of the CCHA in goals against - Coreau at 2.22 and Slubowski at 2.03 - and sported far superior saves percentages - Coeeau at .928 and Slubowski at .911.
For comparison, Miami senior Connor Knapp led the CCHA a year ago with a 1.69 goals against average and .933 saves percentage.
This season, it's Ohio State senior Brady Hjelle leading the way with a 1.45 goals against average and .950 saves percentage in seven games and 414:57.
"In the league right now, it's real unfair for (Coreau)," Kyle said. "I counted we have 35 games missed to injuries. They are all high-end guys. I don't think his numbers are reflective of how good he's been. Would he like to have some goals back at critical times that cost us? Yeah, he would. He's been pretty good. I don't think he's ever been below a C for us. Most nights he is a B, B-plus.
"I think he's capable of throwing some A games at people," the coach added. "I don't think there's a better goalie in the league. We just haven't been as good in front of him as we need to be."
Coreau has been yanked from the net twice this season during the third period in favor of true freshman Michael Doan, both times on the road. The first was when he let in five goals at Nebraska-Omaha on Oct. 19 and again on Nov. 9 against Miami after giving up four.
Both instances were on Friday nights. He responded soundly on Saturday, stopping 35 of 36 shots faced in a 2-1 win over the Mavericks and 31 of 33 shots in a 2-2 shootout loss to Miami.
"Right now, if you were to give me a letter grade, I'd say B, B-plus," Coreau said. "It's not so much a whole game. It might be just a period or something. But still, as a starting goalie, I have to play the entire game, 60 minutes, three periods."
Like Kyle, Western Michigan head coach Andy Murray is more worried about the men in front of the crease rather than the guy who resides inside it.
The defending Mason Cup champions returned five of their six starting defensemen from last season - Northern brought back all six - but it hasn't led to great five-on-five play according to the second-year Broncos' coach and former head coach of the Los Angeles Kings (1999-2006) and St. Louis Blues (2006-10).
"Our defensive game as a whole has not been what we need to to be, particularly in five-on-five situations," Murray said in his Monday press conference.
"We need defensemen to recognize the type of players they are and the role they need to play and not try to beyond those boundaries.
"We also need to have a better collective effort from our forwards," he added. "We think our compete level, our defensive awareness and our work ethic on defense needs to be better."
NOTES: NMU senior forward Matt Thurber and freshman forward Justin Rose are still suspended for this weekend's series by Kyle for a violation of a team rule during the trip to Ohio State. Rose is also recovering from an injury. Thurber leads NMU in scoring with a goal and 11 assists in 11 games.... Junior forward Stephan Vigier is doubtful, according to Kyle, after taking a knee to the leg on Saturday against Alaska. Vigier, with three goals and seven assists, is tied with sophomore Reed Seckel for second on the team in scoring.... Seckel has five goals and five assists to tie him with sophomore Ryan Daugherty and freshman Cohen Adair for the team-high in goals.... Adair was named the NMU Student-Athlete Scholar of the Month for October by the NMU Athletic Council. Adair is a computer science major from Startford, Ontario, Canada.
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.