Dominik Shine and Atte Tolvanen might well have saved Northern Michigan’s season.
The Wildcats, who came into last weekend’s series with Alaska-Anchorage in the WCHA cellar, were close to seeing their league playoff hopes disappear. UAA held a six-point lead on NMU and could have made things very difficult on the Wildcats with a sweep.
Instead, NMU upended the Seawolves and earned its first series sweep of the season with 6-1 and 4-0 victories Friday and Saturday in Marquette. The Wildcats are now 7-17-4 overall and 5-12-3 in the league.
“It’s a relief,” NMU forward Shane Sooth said after the sweep. “We haven’t done it yet, so it was very important for us, especially going into the bye week feeling good about yourself. We can try and keep some momentum going towards next week.”
Shine had a hat trick Friday and added an assist Saturday for a four-point weekend, while Tolvanen stopped 59 of 60 shots and earned a shutout.
“I was really proud of the leadership of the guys [and] I was really proud of their focus all week,” NMU coach Walt Kyle said in a postgame press conference Saturday. “It’s never easy to beat somebody twice, especially when so much is on the line for both teams.”
The Wildcats had struggled in the first half of the season, going just 4-16-2 before the New Year. That poor start put them well behind in the league standings.
But since the start of 2017, things have looked better for NMU — the Wildcats are 3-1-2 following four consecutive games against Lake Superior State and last weekend’s series with UAA.
Tolvanen has let in just three goals in his last four games.
“Since Christmas, Atte has looked like a different goalie,” Kyle said.
“I’ve started working a little harder in practice in the new year, and it’s paid off,” Tolvanen said. “The guys have been unbelievable in front of me the past two weekends.”
NMU’s offense has also played well as of late, scoring 20 goals in their last six games.
Shine’s hat trick in last Friday’s game was his second this month, after earning another three goals in NMU’s 6-4 win over Lake Superior Jan. 7.
Aside from Shine, six other Wildcats scored last weekend, too.
With last weekend’s sweep, NMU moved into a tie for ninth along with UAA. Both the Wildcats and the Seawolves have 19 points. Both are four points behind Alabama Huntsville, who is in eighth place and currently in the final playoff position.
After the bye week, NMU has four series left — three against the top half of the conference. They will travel to Bowling Green next weekend, then host Alaska before traveling to Minnesota State. They end the regular season with a home-and-home with Michigan Tech.
It’s a lighter weekend in the WCHA, but it’s a weekend where teams from the bottom half of the WCHA standings have a chance to send a message to the rest of the league.
Fifth-place Lake Superior State travels to Minnesota State and sits just six points out of home-ice position for the WCHA playoffs. With a regulation sweep this weekend, the Lakers would turn up the pressure for the rest of the season.
However, a sweep by Minnesota State would all but lock up one of the top four spots and first-round home-ice advantage.
There is similar scenario in the other key WCHA series this weekend.
Ferris State, currently in seventh place, has perhaps it’s final chance to move into striking distance of hosting a first-round playoff series when it travels to Bowling Green.
The Bulldogs are within striking distance of the Falcons, who have played two additional WCHA games so far, but a sweep by Bowling Green would likely be the key moment that helps secure home-ice in the first round.
The Falcons however, aren’t getting caught up in that right now.
“We are talking about the standings,” Falcons coach Chris Bergeron told BGSUHockey.com. “We are talking about home ice in the first round. We’d be doing a disservice to our team not talking and thinking about those things.”
In the the third WCHA weekend series Alabama Huntsville hosts Michigan Tech, in a series that could be a first-round playoff preview. The Chargers don’t look like they’ll be able to climb into the top four, but have an opportunity to send a message to the Huskies — who very well could be their first-round opponent.
— League-leading Bemidji State is idle in conference play this weekend, but has a final chance to earn some nonconference wins when it competes in the North Star College Cup in St. Paul, Minn. The Minnesota-based tournament field this year includes St. Cloud State — BSU’s first-round opponent — as well as Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth. Minnesota State is sitting out the tournament, which will end after this season.
— Alaska-Anchorage continues to be led by junior captain Matt Anholt, who has a team-high 15 points and 10 helpers – leading UAA in both categories. With a guaranteed eight games left, Anholt has already bypassed his rookie season production and needs eight points to top his sophomore season (22).
— Alabama-Huntsville is looking to change its luck against Michigan Tech this weekend. The Chargers have never beaten the Huskies at home, and have an 0-11-1 all-time record against Michigan Tech.
— Bowling Green defenseman Connor McDonald is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. McDonald sustained the injury last week against Alaska and has been practicing this week, but hasn’t been cleared for contact as of Thursday morning.
— Ferris State senior Gerald Mayhew extended a three-game goal streak and had a three-point night this past weekend against Bemidji State.
— Lake Superior State jumped from eighth place to fifth in the WCHA standings thanks to its sweep of Huntsville. The Lakers head to Mankato to take on Minnesota State — who is just six points ahead of LSSU for the fourth playoff spot.
— Michigan Tech continues to lead the country with the most wins since Halloween weekend, matching Vermont with 14 victories since Oct. 28. The Huskies’ .727 winning percentage (14-4-4) is the fourth-best nationally in that span.
— Minnesota State, who hosts LSSU this week, is 13-2-0 all-time versus the Lakers. The two teams split a series played in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., in early November with the Lakers claiming a 5-1 win and the Mavericks a 2-1 victory.
Players of the Week
This week’s WCHA players of the week are Shine (offensive), Tolvanen (defensive) and Lake Superior State freshman forward Luke Morgan (rookie).