OMAHA, Neb. — Call it bus-lag or whatever you like; spending hours on end on the road will take its toll on anybody. It’s a feeling the Northern Michigan hockey team knows all too well.
Hard to blame the Wildcats, then, if they look a bit sluggish when they first leave the asphalt behind in exchange for a 200-foot-long slab of ice. Luckily for them, no matter what happens, the CCHA’s scheduling policy normally allows them two opportunities on any given weekend to give it a bash, and that’s just what they did on Saturday night.
Northern took their second chance at impeding No. 18 Nebraska-Omaha’s progress up the league table on Saturday, turning in a gem of a second period and a big night from sophomore forward Mark Olver in topping the host Mavericks, 4-3, in front of 7,317 fans at Qwest Center Omaha.
UNO controlled the early going on Saturday, as they tried to capitalize on their 4-3 win over the Wildcats the night before, but the final 40 minutes of the weekend belonged almost entirely to the visitors.
The Mavericks’ defense was often caught out of position in front of goaltender Jerad Kaufmann’s net in Saturday’s middle frame, and Andrew Fernandez, Jared Brown and Olver all took advantage, allowing NMU to return to the dressing room with a commanding 3-1 lead.
Mavericks’ senior winger Tomas Klempa pulled a goal back at 15:14 of the third period to temporarily bring the game back within doubt, but whereas Northern had run out of gas in the series’ opening game, they had no such problems on Saturday.
“We certainly played better tonight,” Northern coach Walt Kyle said. “They didn’t get anything on us five-on-five; (Klempa) did get a couple on the power play, but I liked the way that we played.”
Without question, though, Olver was the main focal point for NMU in both games. Capping off a homecoming weekend of sorts after having played junior hockey for the Omaha Lancers, Olver added a goal and an assist on Saturday to his lone strike on Friday, continuing his strong play as the season’s gone on, despite suffering a slow start to the campaign.
“I thought he played really well this weekend,” Kyle said. “Mark struggled out of the gate for us this season, and I believe there was a bit of a sophomore slump and that he got caught up in that a little bit, but after about ten games, every night he’s been arguably one of the best players on the ice.”
Despite what can only be described on a personal level as a successful return to his old stomping grounds, however, Olver was more focused on the play of the team, and how that had progressed from the first game of the series to the last.
“I thought yesterday we were pretty tired as a team,” he said. “We came out hard, but as the game progressed we were slow and tired.
“I don’t know if Walt was on our case today or what, but I thought we came out better today. The first period was a fair period, and then I suppose we might’ve added a bit of a step to our game.”
It’s a fact that wasn’t lost on UNO coach Mike Kemp, who had been saying to anybody who would listen that looks can be and, in the case of Northern Michigan, often are deceiving.
“Northern is a very good hockey team,” he said. “I’ve been saying it, and people haven’t believed me, but that’s one of the better teams in our league, even though their record doesn’t show it.
“They’ve been snake-bit all year, but they’re talented, and it showed tonight.”
The Wildcats (6-13-3, 3-10-3-2 CCHA) now have a week off before Alaska, UNO’s opponent next week, comes calling to Marquette. UNO (13-7-3, 8-5-3-2), on the other hand, face a shortened week of sorts before making the long jaunt to Fairbanks to take on the Nanooks in the two sides’ third and fourth meetings of the season.