Quick! Name six members of the 2003-04 Northern Michigan team. Tuomas Tarkki, Darin Olver, and Nathan Oystrick don’t count.
If the Wildcats weren’t voted so high in the CCHA coaches and media preseason polls, they might seem like a league darkhorse. NMU returns just one double-digit conference goal scorer from a year ago, and legendary goaltender Craig Kowalski (2.77 GAA, .918 SV%) is gone.
But there are good reasons to think that Northern may finish much higher than last year’s seventh-place showing, not the least of which is the enthusiasm of head coach Walt Kyle.
“One of the things this year that we’re excited about [is that from] where we are, we’re looking at the season with optimism. We thought we made a strong finish last year, made a strong run in the playoffs … played well up to our capabilities.
“Really for the first time [we have] people who are experienced and understand what I want and what our coaching staff wants. We hope we’re ready to take a step and we’re excited about it.”
Okay. So the keyword here is excited.
Given that the Wildcats return all of their top scorers from a year ago — that you have to go pretty far down last year’s scoring stats to find a senior — I am completely down with the excited vibe.
“The strength of our team is defense,” says Kyle. “We’re led back there by Nathan Oystrick who to me is one of the premier defenseman in our league. Geoff Waugh is another guy who’s a strong defensive defenseman.” Oystrick (5-14-19) and Waugh (0-9-9) are defensive partners. “They’re going to anchor” the blueline, says Kyle.
It’s not merely the defensive play of Oystrick and Waugh that will anchor the Wildcats; Oystrick is the team’s captain, and Waugh is an alternate. Both are juniors, and that solid D-corps is seasoned.
In goal, Tarkki (2.77 GAA, .918 SV%) proved himself when Kowalski was injured last season, looking good in the second half and in the playoffs. Still, says Kyle, Kowalski will be difficult to replace for other reasons. “We lost Kowalski, who was the backbone of our team for the two years that I was here.”
Kowalski was instrumental in helping everyone get on board the Kyle train after Rick Comley left for Michigan State.
Sophomore Darin Olver (12-11-23) is speedy, fearless, and can score goals. The only other Wildcat who scored more than 10 goals overall last season was Dirk Southern, who netted 10 in all games, but just six in league contests. Obviously, Olver is going to need some help.
Red or Blue?
In order to reach their predicted potential, the Wildcats are going to have to improve on both sides of the puck this season. “Up front, we have the same questions that everyone else has,” says Kyle, mainly who will be scoring goals.
In addition to Olver, Southern, and Milam (6-9-15), Kevin Gardner (5-6-11) has potential as does Pat Bateman (5-5-10). To climb out of seventh place, to host a first-round CCHA playoff series, the Wildcats will have to score more than 66 goals in 28 league games.
And as good as the NMU defense is, Kowalski saw nearly 30 shots per game on average last season, and Oystrick and Waugh finished 2004-05 minus-five in league play each. In fact, the team finished minus-64 in CCHA contests, indicating a significant need for better play in its own end this year.
So why pick NMU so high? “In the league,” says Kyle, “in my opinion, Michigan and Michigan State are the teams to beat, and from that point on, no one knows.”
Given that the Wildcats will play a total of 12 league games against Lake Superior State, Alaska-Fairbanks, and Nebraska-Omaha — all teams expected to finish in the bottom half of the standings — coupled with NMU’s veteran roster compared with Miami, Notre Dame, and Ohio State, there’s a good chance that the Wildcats can finish high this year.