The Northern Michigan Wildcats are no strangers to the CCHA Championship.
Since coach Walt Kyle joined the squad eight years ago, they have made seven appearances in the tournament, but only managed to take it to the consolation game each Saturday night. With their highest CCHA ranking in recent years earning them a first-round playoff bye and a seemingly easy breeze past the Alaska Nanooks in round two, the Wildcats were eager to play for their much awaited spot in the championship game.
“It’s our third year here in a row,” senior goaltender Brian Stewart said. “I’ve been the starting goalie each time. … We had the lead going into the third two years ago against Michigan and lost. And then last year tied it up with one minute left against Notre Dame and lost that one.”
Friday’s game against Ferris State at Joe Louis Arena was just as turbulent as the previous years, the lead switching every period.
“When they tied it up there I was afraid weren’t going to make it again,” junior Greger Hanson said. “I’m really glad the team pulled it off this time around, for a minute this game looked too much like the last couple of years.”
The Wildcats broke away from that tradition and scored three consecutive goals within 1:02, a CCHA record. Senior Ray Kaunisto had two of the shots that put the Wildcats back in the game and not only reset CCHA history, but Wildcats history as well.
“Ray, Tyler Gron and I have been playing together for half the season and we’ve really developed a great chemistry between us,” Hanson said. “We were on fire tonight. It was great to be on the ice together and put up that many points.”
That same line produced the overtime game winner, a shot from Hanson that left everyone stunned.
“The game winner was a play that I don’t think Ferris expected,” Hanson said. “I think they expected me to go wide and down low. I caught them off guard up the middle and got the goal.”
With the 5-4 overtime win, the Wildcats will appear in the CCHA championship game for the first time since 1999, and the first time with Kyle as head coach.
“We get to play for a championship tomorrow and there aren’t many chances for coaches their team to do that,” Kyle said.
At previous tournament appearances, Kyle would joke that the consolation game should be called the “Walt Kyle Consolation Game” because his team had played in it so many times. This year, he gets to put all jokes aside and compete for the Mason Cup and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
“We’re really happy,” Kyle said. “I was sick of playing in that game. … I’m happy to take the next step and whether we play Michigan or Miami, it’s going to be a huge challenge.
“We have it all in our own hands for tomorrow and we’re really excited,” Hanson said. “We think we can win this game and win the championship and hopefully we’ll be able to associate Northern Michigan with the Mason Cup and not the consolation game.”
The last time Northern Michigan won the CCHA playoff championship was in 1981, when Kyle himself captained the team. He’s hoping to have his name return to it again under the new banner of 2010.