ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Northern Michigan jumped to a two-goal lead midway through the first period and played a classic road contest the rest of the way, capitalizing on Brian Stewart’s stellar goaltending and perfect penalty killing to defeat Michigan, 3-1, Friday night at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor.
“We took far too many penalties,” said Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle. “I thought at times we turned the puck over trying to create too much offense, but, I thought we played the way we needed to on the road.”
Stewart’s 38 saves, 14 of them in crunch time in the third period, negated any hope Michigan had of rallying from its early deficit. He backstopped the Wildcats to eight successful penalty kills, a perfect record for the night.
“We started off with four straight penalties in the first,” noted Kyle. “The penalty killers did a great job and we were able to weather that storm. I thought Stewart was outstanding. We got a couple of bounces and then we just gutted it out.”
“I don’t think we had a lot of quality chances,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “When you look at their two goals, they weren’t scoring chances either. One goal was a weak shot deflected and another was a bad-angle shot that got into the net. You have to score ugly goals when you aren’t getting scoring chances.”
Gregor Hansen and Phil Fox gave the Wildcats all the offense they would need with their two tallies 92 seconds apart just after the halfway point in the first period.
Carl Hagelin replied for the Wolverines before the first period ended and the game remained scoreless from that point until Jared Brown, who had already assisted on the first two Northern Michigan goals, cinched the victory with an empty-netter with only 46 seconds to play.
“You would like to get rewarded when you’re playing well and getting good chances,” said Berenson. “It gets the momentum going. Northern Michigan played a good defensive, road style of hockey and we had to earn everything and every inch out there.”
The win for senior netminder Stewart the was 13th of the season for the Wildcats.
“He’s been outstanding,” said Kyle of Stewart. “I think that he’s one of the keys to our team, the backbone of our team.”
This weekend’s two-game series loomed as a crucial one for both teams. Northern Michigan entered Friday night’s contest four points ahead of the Wolverines with only four games left to play. At stake is a first-round bye in the CCHA conference playoffs, earned by the top four teams in the standings at season’s end.
With the CCHA awarding three points for a win, the nine-point margin between fourth place Nebraska-Omaha (26 games played) and tenth place Notre Dame (24 games played) heading into this weekend’s play is far less than it appears at first glance.
The tightness of the race made the Wildcats’ victory an important one.
“Every game’s important right now,” pointed out Kyle. “This one’s done. It doesn’t mean any more than one in October. Now, tomorrow night, we have to be very focused on our job.”
The Wildcats built their 2-1 lead in a first period dominated by special teams play.
After successfully killing three straight minor penalties in the first half of the opening period, Northern Michigan took little time capitalizing on a power play of its own.
Only seven seconds after Michigan’s Brian Lebler was whistled off for charging the goalie, Hanson bagged the game’s first goal. The junior Wildcats’ forward skated into the circle to Michigan goaltender Bryan Hogan’s left, shifted the puck to his backhand and flicked a shot at Hogan. Clearly expecting Hanson to pass, Hogan was shifting to his right anticipating the pass as the puck slid between his legs at 11:46.
Northern Michigan wasted little time extending its lead to 2-0. At 13:18, Phil Fox struck paydirt for the Wildcats on a harmless looking play, tipping in Jared Brown’s shot from directly in front of the Michigan goal.
Hagelin pulled Michigan within reach with a strong individual effort at 16:54. Hagelin streaked into the Wildcats’ zone and was forced into the right corner, where he managed a sharp-angle shot that bounded off Stewart and trickled into the net.
The game remained scoreless until Brown finally found the empty Michigan net late in the third period to ice the Northern Michigan triumph.
Northern Michigan (15-10-8, 11-8-6-3 CCHA) and Michigan (17-16-1, 12-12-1-0 CCHA) close out their important weekend series with a return engagement at Yost Ice Arena Saturday night.
“They’re a very good team,” said Kyle of Michigan. “We’ve got to do a better job limiting our turnovers and we can’t give that many power plays tomorrow.”