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Wildcat hockey needs wins after bad week down south

MARQUETTE – Every series at this point of the college hockey season is important, but for the Northern Michigan University Wildcats, this weekend is crucial.

Two weeks ago, the Wildcats were on an emotional high. They had taken three points from archrival Michigan Tech and their power play was clicking, going 4 of 6 against a ranked Huskies squad.

Then last weekend, NMU headed to the Deep South and were surprisingly swept aside by Alabama-Huntsville with the Wildcats power play going 0 of 10. The season’s first sweep came at a bad time with NMU now clinging to the last WCHA home playoff spot.

Wildcats assistant coach Rob Lehtinen felt that NMU’s failure to capitalize on its scoring chances, including during power plays, were the main reasons for getting swept.

“I thought our effort was there for both games,” Lehtinen said. “Friday night I think the scoring chances were 34-5 and one of their goals wasn’t a scoring chance.

“When you get that many scoring chances and only generate one goal, it’s tough and the goalie steals the game.

“On Saturday night, we were kind of trading chances back and forth. Our power play went 0 for 7 on Friday and 0 for 3 on Saturday, so they have to get it done too.”

When asked what happened to the power play, Lehtinen said Huntsville goalie Carmine Guerriero was key, as well as the Chargers’ ability to block shots.

“Their penalty kill was pretty similar (to Michigan Tech),” he said. “They play real passive and they front pucks. Their goalie played really well.

“A lot of times our shots on the power play were getting blocked by their third-layer guy, so they did a good job of blocking shots.”

Wildcats captain Ryan Kesti had similar thoughts on the series and emphasized the importance of getting a shield in front of the opposing goaltender.

“Our power play has definitely got to get better,” he said. “We just need to get traffic to the net. Anytime you are struggling to score goals, you’ve got to get to the net and take away a goaltender’s eyes.”

When asked if last weekend’s series could define the Wildcats’ season, Kesti shook his head no.

“There are times throughout the year that can turn your season up or down, but it’s never too late to turn it in the right direction,” he said. “We still have a very good team in this locker room and one weekend is not going to define our season.”

This weekend, NMU heads to Penn State for a nonconference series. The Nittany Lions have surprised most of the nation with an 11-7-3 record and they currently sit atop the Big Ten conference at 5-2-1, an impressive feat for a program started only three years ago.

“I think Penn State is a highly competitive team and they are ranked really high in their league,” Wildcats assistant coach John Kyle said. “It’s going to definitely be a challenge and we’ve always told our players that you get better when you play good teams.

“I don’t think that we should have a problem getting up for this and raising our level of intensity and sharpness.

“We need to play physical and stay out of the (penalty) box. We need to create some offense and we need to find a way to do that, so we’re going to try a few new things.”

Penn State rattled off four straight wins earlier in the season and have upset nationally ranked Massachusetts-Lowell on the road as well as Big Ten powerhouse Michigan on the Wolverines’ home ice.

The Nittany Lions are led offensively by junior forward Casey Bailey. Bailey has 16 goals – tied for second in the nation – and 26 points (tied for 13th). Fellow forwards Taylor Holstrom (18 assists, tied for seventh) and David Goodwin have also surpassed 20 points, so Penn State has firepower.

“Just like every other team, they have top high-end scorers,” Lehtinen said. “We just have to play good defensive hockey against them. Try to not have them capitalize on our turnovers and know when (Bailey’s) on the ice and try to limit his scoring chances.”

Junior Matthew Skoff is Penn State’s primary goaltender and he has had a solid year (2.51 goals-against average and .913 saves percentage), although sophomore Eamon McAdam has also seen playing time.

The Nittany Lions’ weakness is their penalty kill, ranking 42nd out of 59 NCAA Division I teams. NMU has struggled to score goals consistently this year, but if the Wildcats can get their power play going like it did against Tech, goals could come in bunches.

Friday’s game starts at 7 p.m., while Saturday’s begins at 4:30 p.m. and will be televised on the Big Ten Network.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.