In hostile territory
MARQUETTE – It’s officially time to drop the puck for the college hockey season.
The Northern Michigan University Wildcats are looking for a repeat of the strong performance they put on last season with a road sweep over a Big Ten school.
The University of Wisconsin again provides the opposition, but this year instead of a somewhat-neutral Green Bay, Wisconsin, the Wildcats will travel to the Badgers’ den at 8 p.m. EDT Friday and Saturday at the Kohl Center in Madison.
Last year, NMU started off against Wisconsin at the Resch Center in Green Bay, shutting out the Badgers 2-0 Friday thanks to two first-period goals, then dominating the Badgers 4-1 on Saturday with two empty-net tallies.
The teams went in opposite directions after that. NMU used the sweep as a springboard as they headed to Alaska in late November with a record of 6-1-1, while the Badgers had a disastrous season, finishing the year at just 4-26-5.
Bucky’s Badgers were a young team last year and still are, but NMU head coach Walt Kyle says it will be a tough battle this time.
“I think they are in better shape,” he said. “We caught them at the right time last year. They had just had some defections and they had a number of seniors the year before. I think they got behind the eight ball and things just didn’t go well for them.
“Some of the guys that they had in their lineup a year ago were really good players and (Grant) Besse (22 points) is a preseason All-Big Ten player. (Adam) Rockwood and (Cameron) Hughes were freshmen last year and they were really good.
“They followed that up with Seamus Malone and (Luke) Kunin, who is supposed to be (an NHL) first-round pick. They’re really well coached offensively and it’s always one of the toughest buildings to play in the country. Any time you play Wisconsin, it’s a challenge.”
The Badgers’ biggest strength last season was its goaltending with Joel Rumpel. However, Rumpel is gone, so if the Wildcats strike quickly they could put the Badgers on the ropes early.
One of the players who could light the lamp early on is winger Dominik Shine, who finished with 20 points last season. He might’ve had more if he hadn’t missed a good chunk of the season due to injury.
“I’m feeling really good right now,” he said. “I stayed here all summer and trained with a couple of my teammates. I’m excited to get the season started and hopefully we can all stay healthy.”
Another player looking to make a statement is defenseman Barrett Kaib. Kaib also was on the disabled list for part of the year and is eager to start the season.
“Any time that injuries play a factor into your season, it’s hard to keep the team together,” he said. “I was sidelined for a long time, we lost our top goalie (Mathias Dahlstrom), one of our wingers in Shine. It was unfortunate because we got off to a great start.
“We want to build off last year. We have a chance to win every night and want to make it a point to win every game in our home barn. If we do that, we’ll be in good shape.”
The season technically started on Saturday with an exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 National Development Team. The Wildcats won 4-0 and Kyle liked what he saw. He also thinks playing a team of that caliber was a good test for the Wildcats.
“I thought Saturday went well,” he said. “We’re faster and I think the guys that we need to grow showed big signs of growth.
“Robbie (Payne) took a big step, John (Siemer) is back in form to where he was two years ago, Zach (Diamantoni) and Jordan (Klimek) took big steps. Sami (Salminen) also looked like a better player. I was also pleased with (Atte) Tolvanen and (Derek) Dun in net, and I liked the way our freshmen looked. Overall, it was good.
“I do think it was a great test because they are as good as, there might be a couple of other college teams like Alberta or New Brunswick that are a little bit better than they are, but other than that, they are the most talented team that you can have an exhibition with.
“They have some really good players and after they played us, they went up and beat Lake Superior State, so it was a good test.”
Dun, a junior, saw some action in goal Saturday, making 12 saves in the win and although he’s hoping to make some noise this season in the battle to be Dahlstrom’s backup, he’s not stressing about it.
“I thought I did well,” he said. “I felt comfortable and I was seeing shots well. My goal this season is to work hard every day and whatever happens, happens.
“I’m just going to practice hard and push it every day and try to make it hard for Walt to make a decision.”
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.