Road test

MARQUETTE – The last two weeks have been rough on the Northern Michigan University men’s hockey team.

The Wildcats were swept in a nonconference series at Minnesota-Duluth and then swept again in a crucial WCHA series last weekend at home by another Minnesota team, Bemidji State.

The results have left Northern tied with Bemidji for the last WCHA home playoff spot, and with BSU holding the tiebreaker. NMU is 11-13-6 overall and 8-10-4 in league.

“I think we had an opportunity here at home to take advantage of games against Bemidji,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “They did a great job and they were able to win both games.

“They’re probably in control right now and we have to take every game as we did going into last week seriously. We have to take every game with urgency. They have to understand that they need to win games to get that home ice spot.”

Even though it didn’t show up on the scoreboard, NMU captain Ryan Kesti felt that the Wildcats put forth a good performance in Saturday’s 5-1 loss.

“I think throughout the year we talked about having quality of play,” Kesti said. “At the end of the day, results obviously matter, but when the quality of play is there, results will come.

“I think Saturday we had a good quality of play. We dictated the pace the majority of the game and we had puck possession. We just weren’t able to score and they took advantage of their opportunities.”

NMU has three series left to try to make up for last weekend’s sweep, but the road doesn’t get any easier.

The Wildcats head to Ohio this weekend to take on Bowling Green State. The Falcons are No. 8 in the national rankings and have all but locked up a NCAA tournament bid. This is all the more impressive considering that the school almost eliminated its hockey program a few years ago.

“They’re in the top 10 for a reason,” Kesti said. “They play with a lot of speed and they’ve got some guys who are phenomenal with the puck and without it. They have early exits out of their zone, so we’re going to have to have a good forecheck this weekend.”

The last time the Wildcats played BGSU was in early December at home. Northern kept up with the Falcons for a 5-5 tie on Friday night, but were crushed 5-0 Saturday in arguably NMU’s worst performance of the season.

The Falcons use a balanced attack to find success with three players having 20 points or more with Kevin Dufour leading them with 13 goals. BGSU is also sound defensively – ranked 10th nationally – with two great goaltenders in Chris Nell and Tommy Burke, who sit at Nos. 1 and 2 in the conference for saves percentage.

In addition to sound defense, the Falcons’ penalty kill is statistically the best in the nation. Northern has struggled mightily to score goals this year, so they will have to make their opportunities count against the Falcons’ two talented netminders.

“We have a tough stretch coming up,” Kyle said. “We’ve got Bowling Green and (Michigan) Tech, along with Lake Superior, a rival here at home.

“Right now, we need to find a way to put some pucks in the net. That’s the honest truth. We’re struggling to score even when we are getting shots. Knowing that we aren’t going to score a lot, we have to do as much as we can at the other end to eliminate chances and goals.”

When asked if there was a magic formula to help the Wildcats rack up some goals, Kesti emphasized the importance of simplicity.

“If we had a magic formula, I think we’d all be a little bit happier,” he said with a laugh. “We just have to keep it simple. A lot of times, we’re settling for perimeter shots and not having enough traffic in front of the net. Playing on a small sheet this weekend, we might have a chance to get more pucks at the net with guys closer.”

Friday and Saturday’s games both start at 7:07 p.m. at the BGSU Ice Arena.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.