MARQUETTE, Mich. — With the crowd chanting, “Hey, ho, we’re going to the Joe!” in the background, the Northern Michigan Wildcats stamped their ticket to CCHA championship weekend in Detroit for a fifth straight season, beating Nebraska-Omaha, 3-2, at the Berry Events Center on Saturday to complete a two-game sweep of the Mavericks.
The Wildcats are now riding a six-game winning streak, one that comes at the most important time of the season. During the streak, Northern has found some consistency on the offensive side of the puck, tallying at least four markers five times. Prior to that, NMU had scored fewer than four goals in seven consecutive games, winning just two of those contests.
The win did not come easy for Northern, which built a 3-0 lead in the second period, then had to hold on in the third.
The Mavericks scored a pair of third-period power-play goals to get within one, but the Northern defense buckled down, holding UNO off the scoreboard for the rest of the game. The Mavs had a last-chance flurry to tie the contest, but the defense held up.
“You have to give [Omaha] a lot of credit,” said NMU coach Walt Kyle. “They never quit, they kept coming. We got a little complacent; we laid back a little bit.
“We took some penalties that we didn’t need to take. That gave them some momentum. I didn’t think [we] reacted particularly well. But, inside of five minutes, our veterans … took over and got our team composed. I thought we did a very good job from that point forward.”
“We just kept fighting,” said UNO coach Mike Kemp. “I give our kids a lot of credit. We dug ourselves a big hole like we did last night, but tonight, they saw fit to fight through to the finish. We actually created the opportunities to get those power-play chances in the third period. We were putting pressure on. We were forcing them to take penalties … and consequently, we got the opportunity to finish a couple.”
Bill Zaniboni was strong again in net for Northern Michigan. He stopped 28 of 30 shots, allowing just a pair of power-play goals to gain his 18th win of the year. Zaniboni credited the defensive corps for helping complete the sweep.
“We played great defense all weekend,” said Zaniboni. “Preparing to come into this weekend, we knew we had to play good defense against Nebraska. They’ve got a great offensive squad, and they’ve got a lot of guys that are very dangerous in front of the net. We knew what we were going to have to face, and we had to really buckle down.”
For a second consecutive night, the Wildcats got another strong showing from that defensive corps. They allowed just three goals in the two-game sweep of the Mavericks, none of them at even strength.
“We just made [our] people aware of their top people,” said Kyle. “We made sure we finished our checks, we made sure that we always had numbers back. We made sure we didn’t pinch against their top lines. Just fundamental hockey. You win by grit, guts, determination.”
Early on, it looked as if the defense was going to have to carry Northern through the night. After a tight first period with plenty of chances but nothing on the scoreboard to show for it, NMU struck for three goals in the middle stanza, seemingly putting a dagger through the hearts of the Mavericks.
“We really came out and forechecked,” said Kyle. “We forechecked them hard. We had great possessions in the cycle.”
“They were opportunistic,” Kemp said of Northern in the second period. “They got their chances, they buried their chances.”
For a second straight night, one of college hockey’s top lines was unable to generate any significant offense against the stingy Wildcat defense. The UNO line of Scott Parse, Bryan Marshall, and Bill Thomas was held to just two points on the weekend.
“[Northern] had a checking line, and they made sure [Nathan] Oystrick and [Geoff] Waugh were on the ice as much as possible,” remarked Kemp. “It was a great plan and they executed it very well. They did an excellent job of holding our guys down.”
Pat Bateman opened the scoring for the Wildcats at 1:41 of the second period. Bateman, skating behind the goal, wrapped a puck around the net and behind goaltender Jerad Kaufmann for the 1-0 lead. Mike Santorelli and Darin Olver assisted.
Jamie Milam gave NMU a 2-0 lead less than four minutes later. He took advantage of a Jason Krischuk penalty to score Northern’s first power-play goal on the night. Nathan Oystrick, stationed in the left circle, dropped a pass back to Milam at the point, who fired a bomb toward the goal and through the five-hole of Kaufmann for his eighth tally of the year. Dirk Southern also assisted.
The Wildcats thought they had sealed the game with their third goal of the period, shorthanded. Andrew Contois picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone, skated by a pair of defenders, then feigned going behind the net.
As Kaufmann began moving toward the other side of the crease, Contois banked a shot off the body of the UNO goaltender and into the back of the twine for the 3-0 lead. Southern assisted.
UNO broke up the shutout in the third period on a power play goal. Kaleb Betts fired a slapshot from the top of the circle that clanged off the pipe and into the net for his sixth goal of the year. Alex Nikiforuk assisted.
The Mavericks cut the lead to one just over three minutes later on a 5-on-3. Nikiforuk notched his 13th goal of the year on a wrister that was assisted by Bill Thomas and Tomas Klempa.
Northern Michigan finished the night 1-for-3 on the power play, while the Mavericks were 2-of-7 with the man advantage.
Bill Zaniboni stopped 28 of 30 shots that he faced in the victory. Jerad Kaufmann made 15 saves in 18 attempts.
The Wildcats will move on to play in the CCHA semifinals at Joe Louis Arena on Friday. It is their fifth consecutive trip to Joe Louis; however, the ‘Cats have not won their first game in Detroit since 2003, having been tripped up in the quarterfinals each of the last two years under the CCHA’s old “Super Six” playoff format.
“It’s special,” said Contois on reaching Joe Louis Arena for four consecutive years. “Ten years from now, you look back and say that maybe you had a pretty good run there. But, as of right now, it’s to the point where we haven’t accomplished much down there. We haven’t taken care of business.
“This year, we’re going to go down there and take care of business. No one remembers a team that just made it down there, everybody remembers a team that won it all, and that’s what we’re going down there to do.”
“You can’t ask for anything else over a four-year career, except winning it,” added Oystrick. “It’s been a goal this year. We’re on a roll right now; hopefully, we’ll keep it going.”