In 2007-08, the Northern Michigan Wildcats began regular-season CCHA play with seven straight losses, six of them against three of the league’s top teams. By the end of that campaign, the ‘Cats had climbed to sixth place on the strength of a good second half, won a first-round home CCHA playoff series, and played their way through East Lansing to Detroit, where they lost 6-4 to Michigan before beating Notre Dame in the CCHA third-place game.
Last year, NMU opened the CCHA season with a win over Michigan before going winless for another seven league games. The ‘Cats — who again faced tough opponents early in their schedule — finished the first half of 2008-09 with a record of 2-9-3 in CCHA play.
Of course, they finished up strong. NMU compiled a 9-3-2 league record in the second half, including a split with Miami and a three-point weekend against Alaska. In the postseason, they swept Michigan State at home in the first round and played their way through Oxford, Ohio, to Detroit — where they allowed just two goals in two games, but never got the chance to play for the Mason Cup.
It is a pattern that coach Walt Kyle would love to break, even though his team opens CCHA play against Miami, Ohio State and Notre Dame, with the last two series on the road.
“We always wonder who makes the schedules,” Kyle said before the start of the season.
“We’ve had slow starts and we’ve got it out of the gate slowly, but we’ve had young teams,” said Kyle. “We’ve had good second halves, we’ve played well in the playoffs, and we hope that the momentum we created at the end of last year will carry over into this year.”
Kyle has plenty of reason to be optimistic. The response his young teams have shown to poor first halves these past two seasons has been tremendous, and now those youngsters are thoroughly tested.
“For the first time in a couple of years we’re really led by a strong group of seniors and a strong group of juniors,” said Kyle, “and we feel real comfortable that the guys that we have here are much more prepared to come out of the gate and have success early.”
One of the strong seniors on whom NMU can rely is the often-overlooked goaltender, Brian Stewart, whose save percentage has improved with every season. “He’ll be the go-to guy all year,” said Kyle. “He’s certainly capable of top-end games and if he can put together the consistency that we hope he can we’re obviously going to be a much better team with that kind of goaltending.”
Kyle called junior defenseman Erik Gustafsson “one of the best players” that he has “had the privilege of coaching,” and Kyle had no problem calling out one of Gustafsson’s classmates.
“Up front, Mark Olver, who’s led our team in scoring the past couple of years, a real dynamic guy, really had 35 or 36 points a year ago but did not have a point in his first 10 or 11 games, did not come out of the gate well at all,” said Kyle. “If he comes out of the gate this year, we’re expecting big things from Mark. We certainly feel he has a little bit better supporting cast around him now than he did at the start of last season.”
The Wildcats have the potential to be the dark horse team of the CCHA, with seasoned veterans who know how to persevere.
“We’re older and the class that has led us is the guys that were sophomores a year ago,” said Kyle. “Some of them weren’t ready to be impact players, but I think they are now.”