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Peninsula ice rivalry

MARQUETTE There are college hockey rivalries all over the country and one of the best takes place beginning Friday.

Northern Michigan University and Michigan Tech will face-off in the first session of a four-game series this weekend.

“It’s a huge rivalry,” Wildcats head coach Walt Kyle said. “They’re looking at it like that. We’re looking at it like that. It’s kind of a great way for us to start league play. I’m anxious to see how we compare against them.”

Friday’s game starts at 7:07 p.m. in Marquette and Saturday’s game is at the same time in Houghton.

Michigan Tech head coach Mel Pearson says the rivalry is a big deal and that the close proximity between the two schools helps with that.

“It’s huge,” he said.” It’s a Division I sport at both schools and we’re only separated by 90 miles. It’s very competitive in not only hockey, but in all sports.

“There are bragging rights across the U.P. I think it’s a great rivalry, a respectful rivalry. To make it a rivalry, you have to have two good teams and I feel that Northern is a much improved team this year.

“I feel that we’ve got our program up to speed a bit, so we can compete with Northern on the ice,” Pearson added. “I expect two hard-fought good games this weekend.”

Both teams are talented, especially at the goaltender position with Jamie Phillips anchoring the Huskies and the Wildcats countering with the one-two punch of Mathias Dahlstrom and Atte Tolvanen.

Offensively, Tech may have an advantage as the Huskies return the majority of the players that clinched a NCAA tournament bid last season such as wingers Malcolm Gould and Alex Petan (both have two goals so far).

However, Northern is a faster team this season and might be able to keep pace with the high-powered Huskies.

Winger Robbie Payne has already notched a hat trick this year and the Wildcats picked up three power play goals last Friday against Lake State, as well as a short-handed goal by Darren Nowick.

Both teams are coming off a split. NMU won Friday and lost Saturday to Lake Superior State while Tech had the same thing happen against Ferris State.

Kyle found some positives coming off the series with the Lakers as well as some things the Wildcats need to work on.

“I saw some really good things,” he said. “I think the games were very similar. I think Friday night we were able to capitalize on our opportunities and I didn’t think that they were as much.

“I think Saturday night we did not capitalize and (LSSU) did. It was just kind of a flip in those areas.

“I thought our power play was really good on the weekend and I even thought it was good Saturday out there.

“We didn’t score any goals, but we had a lot of possession time and we had a lot of opportunities,” Kyle added. “We just didn’t put it in.

“I thought one of the things we weren’t really good at Friday was faceoffs. They controlled the faceoff circle and Saturday, we dominated that. So, we took steps.”

One key player who returned to the Wildcats’ lineup was Dahlstrom, who made his first start Friday since last January.

He played the first two periods, but was replaced by Tolvanen during the third due to some soreness in his knee.

Dahlstrom was happy to be back on the ice and is hoping he’ll be at full strength soon.

“It was a lot of fun to play again,” he said. “I really missed it and I can’t believe that it’s been eight or nine months since I played my last game.

“I thought it was going to be a lot harder than I expected it to be, but I had a great time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t finish the game. I had some soreness, but it’s a step.”

Like Kyle, Pearson said he saw some good things and his Huskies learned where they were as a team.

“I thought it was a good overall weekend,” he said. “You always want to go out on the road and win two games. That’s definitely your goal, but it’s difficult to sweep any team in this league on the road.

“I’m happy with a lot of things with our team, but we found some areas where we can improve on.

“I thought our best player all weekend was our goalie (Phillips),” Pearson added. “He did a good job Friday until we could get our legs under us a bit and he also did a good job Saturday. As Jamie goes, our team will go this year.”

With the two teams squaring off so early in the year, both coaches say it is a benefit to their respective programs.

“I think what it does is put the focus on the hockey season,” Pearson said. “To get your fans going a little early, and they all like to see this game, I think it’s terrific.

“When these two teams get together on the ice, it signals that hockey has started and is ready to go.”

Added Kyle: “If there are great games here and great games in Houghton, it’ll bring people back.

“There will be great energy in the building and I think it’s important from that perspective because that it builds interest around your program and it lets your players see the interest around your program.

“They can feel that energy and if there’s success, it can build on that.”

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