ANN ARBOR, Mich. — After facing one of the nation’s best defenses in Michigan State a week ago, Northern Michigan had to switch gears this weekend against one of the best offenses in Michigan.
Saturday night, it looked like the Wildcats learned how to use that stick shift quickly.
Northern Michigan clogged the Wolverines up at center ice, neutralizing Michigan’s high-powered scorers for a 2-0 victory Saturday night in front of a sellout crowd at Yost Ice Arena.
“I think it was a big win emotionally for us,” Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley said. “We controlled the middle of the ice. They didn’t get a lot of scoring chances. They didn’t seem to want to shoot it much.”
The fifth-ranked Wolverines (21-8-4 overall, 15-6-2 CCHA) did outshoot the Wildcats 25-19, but had only one real odd-man rush the entire game.
“It was frustrating,” defenseman Dave Huntzicker said. “We couldn’t get anything going all night.”
Northern (13-10-7, 9-9-6) couldn’t get much going either, but did score on its first shot on goal. Off Michigan freshman Andy Burnes’ turnover in the Northern zone, senior Fred Mattersdorfer fed junior Chad Theuer, who was skating down the left side. Theuer then placed a perfect centering pass to sophomore Bryce Cockburn, who tapped it past Michigan goaltender Josh Blackburn for a 1-0 lead.
“It was a huge goal for sure — a nice pass from Chad,” Cockburn said. “I was happy to put it in [on our first shot].” Michigan had one of its worst periods of the season, mustering only five shots on goal.
The second and third periods may have looked a little better for the Wolverines, but they still had zero luck to find quality scoring chances. Thanks to a choking defense and goaltender Craig Kowlaski limiting long rebounds, Michigan was only able to take lengthy, sputtering shots.
“From my perspective, we were taking bad-angle shots,” Blackburn said of the Wolverines’ scoring troubles.
One of Michigan’s best chances came with about 12 minutes left in the game. Mike Cammalleri at the right circle found Geoff Koch in the slot with a wide-open net, but Koch couldn’t get to the puck before it was deflected away by Kowalski.
“[Kowalski] didn’t have to make many big saves,” Berenson said. “We didn’t have a real glory scoring chance.”
Michigan deeply struggled with the man advantage, going 0-for-5. The Wolverines failed to move the puck well, as passes were sloppy all night. Meanwhile, the Wildcats’ penalty kill seems to be on its way up in the past few weeks.
“We struggled all year killing penalties until the last month,” Comley said.
The improved killing percentage couldn’t come at a better time, as Northern just completed a tough six-game stretch against Western Michigan, Michigan State, and Michigan with a record of 3-2-1. Now, the Wildcats play the next three of their last four on the road.
“I think we’re [playing playoff hockey],” Cockburn said. “We’re playing the best hockey of the year.”
On the other end, the Wolverines fell behind two more points to CCHA leader Michigan State. The Spartans now hold a five-point lead with five games remaining.
“First place is a long shot now — we shot ourselves in the foot as far as the race,” Berenson said.