DETROIT — The Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks continued their surprising run through the CCHA playoffs, beating the Northern Michigan Wildcats 6-3, in the CCHA Super Six quarterfinals at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Last week, the No. 8 seed Nanooks upset the No. 5 seed Bowling Green Falcons in Bowling Green, and have gone 5-1-1 since being swept at home by Miami in mid-February.
A strong goaltending performance by CCHA all-rookie honoree Wylie Rogers combined with an efficient power play led to the Nanook victory.
“The biggest thing was the play of Wylie Rogers,” said first-year UAF coach Tavis MacMillan. “Wylie had an outstanding game. He seems to be a kid that’s had some ups and downs this year, but for the most part he’s been up. Every time we’ve gone into a series where Wylie’s been up against a great goaltender, he’s risen to the occasion. Tonight, he goes head to head against Tuomas Tarkki, the best player in our league this year, and he does it again.”
Northern Michigan’s first loss in the quarterfinals effectively ended its season.
“It was a tough game,” said NMU coach Walt Kyle. “They did what they had to do. I thought they played very well. We had some breakdowns, obviously. They had the power-play goals and that was the difference in the game.”
Alaska-Fairbanks has been on a roll for the last month, dropping just one game in its last seven tries.
“This team continues surprise me with their resiliency,” said MacMillan “Over the last three or four weeks, they’ve started to take more ownership. We’ve had to do less coaching the last three or four weeks than we did at the start of the year.”
“We’re seeing the emergence of some other guys. It’s great to see. Right now, they’re driving the train. They’re holding each other accountable, they’re holding themselves accountable. I’m just trying to stay out of the way most of the time right now.”
Fairbanks senior winger Jason Grinevitch had three points on the night and was named the second star of the night.
“We just worked hard,” explained Grinevitch. “We knew that if we really worked hard, in the end, it would work out for us.”
The man-advantage played a huge role for both teams in the opening period. Three of the four goals in the period were scored via the power play.
Ryan McLeod opened the scoring for the Nanooks at the 7:15 mark of the opening period. After a Mike Santorelli hooking penalty, the UAF freshman center notched his 13th goal of the year, banging a power play goal off the crossbar and into the net for a 1-0 lead. Kyle Greentree and Jason Grinevitch assisted on the play.
The Wildcats answered with a tally of their own at 10:18. Marquette native Rob Lehtinen scored his fourth goal of the season, wristing a shot from between the circles through the five-hole of Rogers. The goal was assisted by Kevin Gardner and Jamie Milam.
Northern Michigan jumped in front just over two minutes later. Senior winger Tim Hartung, skating with the puck in the left circle, wristed a shot into traffic that again found the five-hole of Rogers. Hartung’s fourth of the season was assisted by Nathan Oystrick and Darin Olver.
The Nanooks tied the game with less than two minutes to go in the period. Senior captain Jared Sylvestre fired the puck on Tarkki, who gave up a rebound to the wide side of the net. McLeod was waiting, and buried the puck into the twine for his second goal of the night. Jason Grinevitch added a helper on the play.
The goal came after Sylvestre was sent off the ice for a hooking penalty, leading to NMU’s second score.
“He redeemed himself by scoring that goal,” said MacMillan.
Fairbanks dominated the Wildcats for much of the second period, scoring a pair of goals, and nearly netting a hat trick in the period.
Aaron Lee scored his ninth goal of the year at 2:18 of the period, picking up a beautiful pass from Curtis Fraser in front of the net and depositing it past Tarkki for the 3-2 Nanook lead.
The Nanooks thought they had a two-goal lead just over the halfway mark of the period. McLeod found an opening in the NMU defense and skated the puck in for a score. However, the goal was disallowed because of a man in the crease.
UAF got its fourth goal of the night one minute after the disallowed goal. Grinevitch, skating on the power play, took a pass from McLeod in the slot and one-timed it past Tarkki for his sixth goal of the year. Greentree added an assist.
Northern Michigan cut the lead to 4-3 at 19:04 of the period. The ‘Cats, with the man-advantage, found a hole in Rogers to keep themselves in the game. Nathan Oystrick wristed a shot from the left circle, beating Rogers top shelf for his seventh goal of the year. Mike Santorelli and Andrew Contois assisted.
The Nanooks increased their lead to two goals midway through the third. Nathan Fortunaro blasted a shorthanded shot from inside the blue line, beating Tarkki for the 5-3 lead. Troy Newton and Darcy Campbell assisted the goal, Fortunaro’s third of the season.
Greentree tallied an empty-net goal with one second left to cap the scoring for UAF.
Rogers stopped 25 of the Wildcats 28 shots. Tarkki made 25 saves on the night in 30 attempts.
The Nanooks were 3 of 7 on the power play, while scoring one shorthanded goal. NMU was 2 of 6 on the power play.
“The difference in the game was the special teams,” said Kyle. “I think four of their goals were on special teams. They did a hell of a job.”
MacMillan has been pleased with the overall progress of his team.
“It’s been a long time coming. You can look back to what [former UAF coach] Guy Gadowsky started here years ago, and we’re starting to see some of the fruition of that now. Gads was disappointed when wee didn’t win here two years ago.”
Kyle was understandably disappointed with the way his Wildcat team ended their season.
“I look back on [the season] with a lot of disappointment. There were some real highs. Oystrick emerged as one of the best defensemen in the country. Tuomas Tarkki had an unbelievable year. We saw growth in a lot of guys. The messageto the guys in the room is, this is close, but it’s not good enough.”
The Nanooks will play No. 1 seed Michigan Friday night in the semifinals. Game time is set for 4:30 p.m.