MARQUETTE, Mich. — The No. 18 Northern Michigan Wildcats (21-14-2) drew first blood in their series with No. 11 Nebraska-Omaha (20-13-6) on the road to the Joe, as they handled the Mavericks, 4-1, at the Berry Events Center on Friday night.
The Cats have won five straight games, dating back to February 17, and are just one win away from their fifth consecutive appearance at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Junior winger Rob Lehtinen scored a pair of “right place at the right time” goals, tipping in a pair of shots to help propel his team to victory. After senior center Dirk Southern scored the game winner late in the opening period, Lehtinen scored an insurance goal in the second period, then recorded another insurance marker in the third to keep the game out of the Mavericks’ reach.
Sophomore Bill Zaniboni also played a big role in Northern Michigan’s victory, backstopping the Wildcats to their first playoff win, and his 17th win of the year. He stopped 25 of 26 shots on the night.
“I think the rest actually helped us,” said Zaniboni of drawing a first-round bye last week in the playoffs. “Those guys had to battle Bowling Green last week, and I’m sure those two games were pretty hard. We had a week to relax and kick back and get everything back into shape.”
The ‘Cats special teams units looked strong tonight, as well. The power-play unit scored a pair of goals with the man advantage, while the PK allowed just one goal in six chances.
“In playoffs, [special teams] always does [play a big part],” said NMU head coach Walt Kyle. “Part of it is goaltending, special teams. I was happy with our effort.”
Northern Michigan was able to effectively shut down UNO’s top two scorers, Scott Parse and Bill Thomas. The two have combined for 108 points this season, but were limited to one harmless power-play goal off the stick of Thomas.
“It always is nice,” said Kyle about shutting down UNO’s top line. “But that’s a very good team, and there’s a variety of weapons on that team. I think [the team] is very well put together, very well coached. They’re real competitors. We’re going to have our hardest task of the year tomorrow night here.”
Kyle was also quick to credit the small, but enthusiastic crowd for playing a role in the win.
“I want to tell everyone in those seats how much I appreciate them being here. I would ask that they come again tomorrow and bring their friends. We need them. We have an opportunity here and we need that energy that this group brings us each night.”
Nebraska-Omaha head coach Mike Kemp credited the defense of NMU in keeping his team in check.
“Northern did a great job tonight,” said UNO boss Kemp. “They did an excellent job in keeping us from getting quality scoring opportunities. They did a great job of keeping us out on the perimeter. That’s just good, sound defense.”
Power-play goals accounted for all the scoring in the first period of play.
The Wildcats got on the board first at 4:06 of the opening period. Point man Jamie Milam drove a shot from the blue line that found its way through traffic in front of the net. Sophomore Matt Siddall was near the crease to deflect the shot past UNO goalie Jerad Kaufmann for the 1-0 lead. The goal was Siddall’s sixth of the year and assisted by Milam and Darin Olver.
The Mavericks evened the score at 16:22 of the period on a quick power-play goal, after a penalty to NMU’s Dusty Collins. Alex Nikiforuk won the draw just outside the NMU zone, threw the puck toward a streaking Bill Thomas, who beat Bill Zaniboni on the stick side for his 26th goal of the year.
Northern Michigan was able to regain the lead just over 90 seconds later. Nathan Oystrick fired a shot from the point on Kaufmann, which the goaltender was not able to handle. The rebound came out to his right, where Dirk Southern was waiting. He wristed the puck in for his 11th goal of the season. Milam also added an assist.
The Wildcats increased their lead in the second period with an even-strength goal off the stick of Rob Lehtinen. He tipped a shot from Nathan Oystrick for his first goal of the night. Milam was also credited with a helper on the play.
Lehtinen added his fifth goal of the year in the third off a Kaufmann rebound. Dusty Collins and Bobby Selden assisted.
Maverick goaltender Jerad Kauffman stopped 14 of 18 shots on the night in the loss. His record now stands at 17-9-6 on the year.
UNO finished 1-of-6 on the power play, while killing off 3 of 5 NMU power plays.
The two teams continue their best-of-three series tomorrow night. Game time is set for 7:35 pm.