MARQUETTE, Mich. — When the Alaska Nanooks entered the Berry Events Center Saturday, they were at the top of the CCHA and were determined to stay there. After falling to the Northern Michigan Wildcats 3-2, however, the Nanooks were left with only questions.
“They finally caught up to us,” Alaska head coach Tavis MacMillan said. “We’re ten games into the season and I just don’t believe that we are a 5-2-3 team right now. When you lose a game, your flaws usually get exposed and I thought that ours did tonight.”
The Wildcats (6-4-2, 3-2-1 CCHA) got on the board early against the Nanooks (5-2-3, 3-1-2 CCHA). Immediately following the opening face-off, NMU forward Pat Bateman forced an Alaska turnover behind the Nanook net. The puck was kicked to the front of the cage, where a 2-on-1 and a pair of quick passes resulted in Nick Sirota poking the puck in the back door and past Nanook goalie Chad Johnson. The goal, which came only 24 seconds into the game, was Sirota’s fourth of the year.
“We wanted to try to catch them off-guard and force them behind the net and I stripped the puck from the guy and found (Darin) Olver in the slot.” Bateman said.
Olver picked up the assist on the play.
“We were fortunate to get a lead that early in the game,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “It was an excellent play and I think that it really helped us because it gave us some energy and it gave the building some energy.”
After notching the early lead, NMU began to put a strangle-hold on the Nanook offense, which was forced to play from behind for the entire game.
“We’re on the road, and now we’re down 1-0,” MacMillan said. “We have to play catch up and that’s very hard to do on the road against a good defensive team.”
The Wildcat defense flexed all day and forced turnovers throughout the game. Alaska could not find a rhythm until it was too late. In the second period, the Nanooks were limited to a measly three shots on goal.
“We were very, very aggressive tonight and that always forces turnovers and loose pucks,” Kyle said. “We won some battles for loose pucks on the power-play and that was important.”
With just under twelve minutes left in the second frame, the Wildcats found themselves on their first power-play of the game. Defenseman Matt Maunu took a pass in front of the Alaska cage and methodically dribbled through defenders before flipping the puck past Johnson for his first goal of the season. The score, which put NMU up by a pair, was only the second power-play goal in six games for the Wildcats and just their sixth on the year.
“The power-play is something that we’ve been working on,” Maunu said. “I just got a lucky bounce out of the corner and took a shot that went in. It proved to be a big goal for us tonight.”
Alaska defenseman Tyler Eckford scored his fourth goal of the year early in the final period to cut the Wildcat lead to one.
The lead remained, however, as NMU forward Andrew Sarauer and Alaska forward Justin Binab traded goals in the last five minutes of the game.
Down 3-2 in the final minute, the Nanooks pulled Johnson to create a 6-5, but were unable to capitalize on the advantage.
Kyle Greentree, who came into the series with 17 points in eight games, was nearly invisible as he failed to produce a point over the weekend.
“You have to limit Greentree if you want to have success against these guys,” Kyle said. “He is a dangerous hockey player. They are a very good hockey team and I was pleased with our effort.”
As the Alaska team left Marquette and prepared for the trek home after a two-week road trip, they knew that there was work to be done.
“We were the only ones at fault in this building,” MacMillan said. “We just didn’t get it done. We’ve only got 28 games and we need to get points. All we talk about is how we need to get points, and to leave without them is tough.”
The Nanooks play the Lake Superior State Lakers in Alaska next weekend while the Wildcats have a rare Wednesday night meeting against the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.