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NMU icers set for WCHA favorite Minnesota State

MARQUETTE – After a long trip to Alaska, the Northern Michigan University hockey team got a much-needed break last week to recover from physical ailments while preparing for a tough portion of their schedule.

That stretch begins tonight when WCHA preseason favorite Minnesota State rolls into town. The Mavericks (6-6) stumbled out of the gate as they were swept by nonconference foes Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud State, but they appear to have gotten back on track and are still loaded with talent.

“I think the break was good,” Wildcats head coach Walt Kyle said of not playing since gaining a split Nov. 6-7 in Fairbanks. “We needed to get some time to rest up from the trip and we also needed some time to catch up academically.

“It’s just one of those deals where it’s hard to go up there and come back and play the next week. To have that weekend off in the schedule worked out perfectly for us. Now we just have to move forward.”

With the break behind them, Northern can focus on the team out of Mankato, Minnesota. The high-powered Mavericks are led offensively by senior forwards Bryce Gervais and Teddy Blueger, who accumulated 36 and 28 points, respectively, last season.

However, MSU also has a talented defense highlighted by Casey Nelson, who had 33 points last season and already has 10 this year.

On paper, the Mavericks’ goaltending may be down a little with the departure of Stephon Williams, but Kyle doesn’t think so.

“It’s funny,” he said. “Three years ago, Williams was the Rookie of the Year in the league and then two years ago, he lost his job to (Cole) Huggins, who is their starter now.

“Last year, those guys kind of split time in net. So they still have really good goaltending. They lost Williams and he was good, but Huggins is still a good goalie.”

One of the things that could help Northern (4-3-3) today and Saturday is a power play unit that has become more productive after the Wildcats fired four goals into the net with the man-advantage in the second game at Alaska-Fairbanks to earn a split of the series.

“I like the way our power play has played and I like the possession that they’ve had, but we haven’t found a way to put the puck in the net,” he said.

“Finally on Saturday, we had a barrage of four goals. I wouldn’t expect that every night, but I think we are ready to score and have success on a more consistent basis.”

Kyle also continues to be pleased with the play of Wildcats freshman goalie Atte Tolvanen, who improved his record to 3-3-3 with that win.

“I think he played really well Saturday night,” Kyle said. “I thought he was just OK on Friday. But there’s going to be some of that. He’s a young kid, and to be honest, we’re nothing but elated with his play.”

In addition to Tolvanen, another positive that the Wildcats have going for them is goal production from players further down the depth chart with players like Cohen Adair, Casey Purpur and Denver Pierce.

All of those facets of the game have helped the Wildcats keep pace in the WCHA, where they are tied for fourth with Alaska-Anchorage and just three points behind the second-place Mavericks.

“I really like the depth of guys that we have and what they have done for us,” Kyle said. “To be without (goalie) Mathias (Dahlstrom) and have Atte come in and do what he has done is exceptional. There’s now a battle there for that job when Mathias does come back.

“I think our young defensemen have done a great job and there’s going to be a battle for those positions when (Zach) Urban and (Barrett) Kaib come back.

“We’re also getting goals from guys like Cohen, a guy who has been in and out of the lineup. Casey has two goals and he’s been in and out of our lineup. Denver has two goals and he was a guy who we thought would be a fifth-line guy for us. Filip Starzynski has a goal as well.

“Our depth guys have done a great job scoring for us. What we need and what we hope to find soon, and we may have started down that path on Saturday in Alaska, is scoring from the top. Those are the guys that we projected to score and have shown that they can score. We need those guys to play and score on a consistent level.”

Both of this weekend’s games start at 7:07 p.m. at the Berry Events Center.

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