MARQUETTE - After 10 straight games in Olympic-sized ice rinks to start 2013, the Northern Michigan University hockey team returned to the narrower NHL-sized sheet Tuesday at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena against Michigan Tech in Houghton.
It was an epic disaster.
After going 6-3-1 during a 10-game stretch on Olympic-sized ice to set themselves up for a possible NCAA tournament run down the home stretch of the regular season, the Wildcats doused those chances with an 8-2 loss to Tech in their final non-league game of the season.
Now the 10th-place Wildcats return to CCHA play - and remain on NHL-sized ice - this weekend at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing against the last-place Michigan State.
The league's two worst teams square off at 7:05 p.m. Friday on the Big Ten Network and again at 7:05 p.m. Saturday on Fox Sports Detroit.
"We're back into league stuff and we have to get the job done," NMU head coach Walt Kyle said following Tuesday's loss. "I thought we had a very good year non-league. We're 6-2 non-league. You have to take that out of it."
Northern Michigan University center Mitch Jones defends the puck from Michigan Tech wing Malcolm Gould on Tuesday at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by David Archambeau)
The Wildcats are only 6-12-4 in CCHA play, though, which is why they sit at the bottom of the league standings with the Spartans.
While neither appears to be heading for the NCAA tournament without the Mason Cup - NMU is tied for 20th in the PairWise and the Spartans aren't even ranked - both NMU and MSU are in contention for home ice in the CCHA playoffs with three weekends remaining in the regular season.
Lake Superior State currently holds the final first-round home ice spot in eighth place with 26 points. NMU (12-14-4 overall, 6-12-4 in CCHA) is three points back at 23, while the Spartans (8-19-3 overall, 6-15-1 in CCHA) are seven back of LSSU with 19 points.
Michigan is ninth with 25 points, but off this week. The Wolverines only have four conference games remaining in the regular season.
"With Northern coming in, they're like us, trying to find their game and trying to move up in the standings," second-year MSU coach Tom Anastos said during his weekly press conference. "It will be a very competitive series.
"For us to make any advancement, we have to start winning games. We certainly don't want to finish where we are today."
To keep the Spartans in the CCHA's basement and stay in contention for a home playoff series, the Wildcats will have to do what they haven't done all season - beat a conference foe in their own rink.
NMU is 0-9-1 on the road in CCHA play this year and 5-11-1 away from the Berry Events Center overall with two of those wins coming on neutral ice in Green Bay against Wisconsin.
At the BEC, NMU is 7-3-3. On the 200-by-100 feet Olympic ice sheets, the 'Cats are 9-5-3.
On NHL-sized rinks, like Munn Ice Arena - which measure 200-by-85 - the Wildcats are 3-9-1.
"We're not going to use small ice as an excuse," NMU junior forward Jake Johnson said following Tuesday's loss to Tech.
"We have to know how to play on both sheets. There's only two Olympic-sized sheets in the CCHA (NMU and Alaska). There's no excuse to be bad just because it's a small sheet of ice."
The Wildcats' next four games are all on the road and on NHL-sized rinks, starting Friday and Saturday in East Lansing. NMU then heads to Ohio for the third time this season to face Bowling Green State on Feb. 22-23.
The Wildcats finish the regular season at home against LSSU, which swept the 'Cats in Sault Ste. Marie, 3-0 and 3-1, on Dec. 14-15.
"We have to be ready to go right from the start," Johnson said about facing the Spartans on Friday. "We can't be behind the 8-ball right away. We got to jump on them early and be ready to go."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens