MARQUETTE, Mich. — When the Northern Michigan Wildcats entered the Berry Events Center on Friday night, they were still entertaining hopes of hosting a first-round playoff game. When all was said and done, however, those hopes were dashed and NMU fell to the Miami RedHawks, 4-1.
“They’re exceptional. This is one of the best teams in the country that we played here tonight,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “If we’re going to be good nationally, we’re going to have to play those teams.”
After NMU cut the Miami lead to 2-1 early in the third it looked as though they would be able to preserve the newfound momentum and possibly draw even.
Then at the 10:20 mark RedHawk forward Alexandre Lacombe intercepted a pass in his offensive zone, skated unscathed to the net and flipped the puck over netminder Brian Stewart’s shoulder for the marker. The score, which was the first of Lacombe’s career, put the RedHawks up by a pair and killed all Wildcat momentum.
“They had us back on our heels a little bit and we were searching for something,” Miami head coach Enrico Blasi said. “Lacombe’s goal was a great goal and a great individual effort by him. We had to put him in the lineup due to some injuries and it’s always nice when we get contributions from guys like that.”
Aside form the stretch in the third period, Miami controlled the game from the start.
Less than four minutes into the contest, RedHawk captain Ryan Jones controlled the puck in the corner of the offensive zone. He skated freely behind the net and performed a textbook wraparound to complete the play. NMU goalie Bill Zaniboni was unable to get into position and the puck slid by for the goal.
The marker was Jones’ 26th of the year and ties him for second in the nation with NMU’s Mike Santorelli.
“For us, he’s just been that way all year,” Blasi said of Jones. “Sometimes the pucks go in and sometimes they don’t. Right now he is playing very well and our team is playing well and anytime he has gotten a chance lately he has been able to bury it. It’s not something that he is doing different or anything like that. He’s our leader for a reason.”
Then early in the second period, Miami forward Nathan Davis took the puck and turned on the jets, flying past the NMU defenders on his way to the net. He fired an awkward backhand at the goal, which was deflected by a tumbling Zaniboni. Davis reached back into a crowd and corralled his own rebound, firing it past Zaniboni for the score and a 2-0 lead.
“Nathan Davis was on a different planet tonight,” Kyle said. “He was clearly the best guy on the ice. He’s a great player.”
The Davis goal also marked the last shot that Zaniboni would face on the evening. After allowing two goals on eight shots he was pulled and replaced by the freshman Stewart in an attempt to change momentum, Kyle said.
Stewart guided NMU out of the second period without allowing another goal before allowing a pair of goals in the final frame. The second goal, however, came at the 18:34 mark as Stewart attempted to leave the ice and give the Wildcats an extra skater. As soon as he left the net, the puck was turned over at mid-ice and Jarod Palmer poked it home before the netminder could scramble back to the cage.
Despite the outcome, Kyle was content with the Wildcats’ defensive play.
“There were some [defensive] breakdowns, but when you’re down, you start pressing like crazy,” Kyle said. “Early in the year we gave these guys 42 or 45 shots. Tonight they had 20.”
Now as the two teams prepare to face-off again on Saturday night, both of their futures have become a bit clearer. With the win Miami locked up the third position in the CCHA. With that comes a first-round bye and a home-ice playoff game in the second round.
Northern Michigan, on the other hand, came into the game hoping for a near-miracle to secure a home-ice game in the first round of the CCHA Playoffs. The loss served to assure the Wildcats that they would, indeed, be traveling next weekend, even if they don’t yet know where they are going.
The puck will drop again tomorrow at 7:35 p.m.