It’s a good year for teams in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. All three squads that call the U.P. home — Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State — have seen measurable improvement from 2010-11.
At the Great Lakes Invitational, it was nice to catch up a little with former Michigan associate head coach, Mel Pearson, who’s in his first year as head coach at Michigan Tech, his alma mater. Pearson had some nice things to say about having coached at Michigan. He also talked about how much the GLI meant to him as a player and how much he would have liked the Huskies to have been rewarded for their hard work in the tournament.
The other two Yooper teams, our very own LSSU and NMU, each played last week under different circumstances, but each got what they wanted out of the experiences — except, perhaps, for some hardware.
Win or lose, it’s still good
Four CCHA teams were contending for midseason glory last week, and one — Michigan — secured a trophy. Michigan State played the Wolverines to an exciting overtime title game at the GLI, while Ferris State and LSSU traveled to Vermont to contend for the Catamount Cup. The latter two came home empty-handed; only the Lakers managed a win, Thursday’s 5-3 victory over Vermont. LSSU lost the title game the following day to Rochester Institute of Technology 3-1.
“What can you say about tournaments?” said LSSU coach Jim Roque. “If you win, then you’ve got something to get you going in the second half. If not, you’re glad you’ve got a couple of games under your belt.”
The Lakers made the 700-mile trip by bus, taking two days to get to Burlington, Vt., and riding straight through on the way back. That may have contributed to a little rust, said Roque.
“I thought we played OK both games,” said Roque. “I didn’t think we were sharp. I don’t know if it was the break plus the ride. I thought against RIT we didn’t have enough zip. I think we played hard and tried hard but didn’t accomplish enough.”
Roque said that the team enjoyed the tournament and the trip, which it took through Ontario — and which could have included a little pond hockey in Deep River, Ontario, on the way back. That’s where they stopped for lunch, and there were about a dozen kids playing outdoors. Had it not been New Year’s Eve, the team would have stretched their legs a little more.
Roque likes the midseason tournaments. “It puts your kids in a position to win something,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing. You play different teams that you don’t see all the time. It’s over break so there’s nothing going on at school. It’s a good experience.”
There were a couple of interesting things to take away from the tournament. Sophomore defenseman Matt Bruneteau got to play against both of his brothers who play for Vermont, sophomore defenseman Nick and junior forward Brett. Goaltender Kevin Murdoch — a sophomore who played with the USHL’s Lincoln Stars last season after a year with Minnesota State — played in his third game of the season, the championship game against RIT. Murdoch backs up starter and classmate, Kevin Kapalka.
“We’d planned [to play Murdoch] before we went out there,” said Roque. “I thought we needed to get him in the game. You never know. It’s Kapalka’s net. He’s durable. He’s the guy. But it’s important to get Kevin [Murdoch] in the game.”
The fourth-place Lakers are nine points out of first place and begin their second half on the road against a tough opponent, the newly minted GLI champion Wolverines. To keep pace with the upper-tier CCHA teams, Roque said that what the Lakers have to do is simple.
“We need to get something going here,” said Roque. “We had a great October and then have been a .500 team ever since. If we’re going to stay in the hunt we’re going to have to play better. Get a little more oomph in our game. Our goaltending is going to have to be better in the second half.”
Roque is particularly concerned with the team’s play in its own end. “I thought the four games before Christmas our defensive play was a little lax around our net a couple of times,” he said. “Even against RIT, we gave up a couple of goals around the net.”
Another small concern is the offense. “It’s inconsistent,” said Roque. “One night it’s five, the next night it’s one. Some of our talented kids are younger. Maybe they’re having difficulty playing consistently on back-to-back nights.”
The Lakers are four points ahead of Michigan and five points ahead of Miami, whom they meet at home Jan. 13-14.
Under the radar — for now
While the Lakers were out East, the Wildcats were playing host to the Russian Red Stars, a single exhibition game that NMU won 3-2 on Dec. 30.
“It was OK,” said NMU coach Walt Kyle. “It served a purpose. For us, I would rather be playing a game that doesn’t count than a game that counts. Up here, we don’t always get kids back from break in time because of flights and weather.”
The Wildcats scored a single goal in each period. Two players that don’t have NCAA goals yet to their credit, sophomore defenseman C.J. Ludwig and freshman forward Ryan Daugherty, had the goals in the first and second periods; sophomore Erik Higby (2-4–6) had the marker in the third. Senior Devan Hartigan — who played six games his freshman year and none since — had the unofficial win.
“We got the opportunity to give a lot of ice time to a lot of kids who don’t normally get it,” said Kyle, who was particularly pleased to give Hartigan the game. “He’s a senior, a straight-A student. He’s going to medical school when he graduates.”
“We’re big time under the radar,” said Kyle. “We’ve still got a long way to go and a lot to prove. There are a couple of reasons. We’re only 9-7-3 and we’re under .500 in the league. What people missed in the that whole deal is that if you look at the PariWise, we’ve played the top schedule in the country. If I was looking at us I may not vote us there, either.”
Kyle said that NMU always tries to schedule tough nonconference opponents in the first half of the season; the Wildcats started 2011-12 with a road split against Wisconsin and two home wins against St. Cloud State. They took four of six points from Michigan in the first weekend of CCHA play.
“We have seven losses, but of those seven losses, two were at Ohio State and two were at Western Michigan, arguably two of the top teams in the country,” said Kyle. “We kept ourselves in it with a schedule that could have buried us.”
One reason for NMU’s ability to keep pace with nearly anyone the Wildcats have played is the consistency of senior goaltender Reid Ellingson (2.41 goals against average, .922 save percentage) and sophomore Jared Coreau (2.13, .925), who have split time in net.
“Those guys have been really solid,” said Kyle. “They’ve each only had one game where they haven’t been good. They’ve both played really well and that’s been the backbone of our team.”
There are several other players who, like the entire Wildcat squad, fly under the CCHA radar, said Kyle.
“There’s no better player in our league that Justin Florek,” he said. “He’s not an exceptionally dynamic guy, but he’s a horse. I can play him 30 minutes if I have to. He’s a great defensive player, he makes players around him play better. He’s not a guy who’s going to out-craft people. He uses his reach, gets on loose pucks strong. He’s just so good all around.”
Florek, a senior, is second among Wildcats in scoring (9-6–15) and is on pace to put up the best goal-scoring numbers of his career. Two other players, defensemen Ludwig and his fellow defenseman, junior Wade Epp, are unsung heroes as well. “Ludwig and Epp have really come on and nobody knows about those guys,” said Kyle. They’re players who have taken big strides.”
With 20 points, the Wildcats are tied for sixth place with Michigan State; each team is 12 points behind league-leading Ohio State. In order for the Wildcats to creep up the standings, the No. 16 NMU defense must remain solid, and the team needs to keep scoring as it has all season — by committee.
“We’ve got guys on our team that have one and two and three goals,” said Kyle, “and those goals were all big goals for us.”
This weekend, the Wildcats begin the second half with two games at home against Alaska. The Nanooks are six points behind NMU.
• Alaska begins its second half with a prolonged stay in the Lower 48. The Nanooks face Northern Michigan this weekend and won’t return to Fairbanks until after their series with Ferris State, Jan. 13-14.
• Bowling Green hasn’t won a game since Nov. 12, when the Falcons completed a two-game sweep of visiting Canisius. BGSU has gone 0-8-2 in the stretch since.
• Ferris State has been shut out four times this season, most recently against RIT in the Catamount Cup. The Bulldogs have the 45th-best offense in the nation, averaging 2.50 goals per game.
• Miami has had nearly a month off, having played last Dec. 10, a 3-2 home overtime loss to Ohio State.
• Michigan State begins the second half of the season with three consecutive weekends at home against CCHA opponents: Miami, Northern Michigan and Lake Superior.
• Notre Dame forward Anders Lee had two goals in ND’s 5-2 win over Boston University Dec. 31. That snapped a nine-game goal-scoring drought for the sophomore.
• Western Michigan sophomore defenseman Dennis Brown had two assists in WMU’s 2-1 overtime win over St. Cloud State on Dec. 30, including a helper on the winner. Brown has 10 assists in 19 games, one shy of his total from his 2010-11 total, reached in 42 games.
Players of the week
Three of the four honored come from the teams that met in the GLI title game. All three of the league’s Big Ten schools are represented.
Rookie of the week: Ohio State’s Nick Oddo, who had a goal and an assist in OSU’s 4-2 win over Robert Morris Friday.
Offensive player of the week: Michigan’s Luke Moffatt, who had a goal in UM’s 4-2 win over Boston College at the GLI and two assists in the Wolverines’ 3-2 OT win over Michigan State. Moffatt did not make the all-tournament team. He was, however, on my ballot.
Defenseman of the week: Michigan’s Kevin Clare, who had an assist against BC and scored the game-winning goal versus MSU.
Goaltender of the week: Michigan State’s Drew Palmisano, who had a remarkable 90 saves — 45 in each game — in the GLI, breaking a tourney record held since 1969. Palmisano was outstanding and would have been the tournament’s MVP had things gone differently in that overtime game.
2. Ohio State
4. Boston College
5. Notre Dame
6. Boston University
8. Colorado College
9. Michigan State
10. Western Michigan
12. Lake Superior State
13. Northern Michigan
19. Ferris State
20. Air Force