February is going to define the season for Northern Michigan.
After a bye in the final weekend of January, the Wildcats are looking at their final eight regular season games from the bottom of the WCHA standings and they need instant results.
Northern Michigan is tied for last with Alaska Anchorage in the WCHA with 19 points. In a format where the top-eight teams make the playoffs, the Wildcats are five points out of eighth place and eight points behind seventh-place Alaska.
Northern Michigan picked up six of those 19 points it swept Alaska-Anchorage on Jan. 21 and 22 — and impressive 10-1 aggregate weekend — the Wildcats are hoping a bye week won’t deter their movement up the standings.
“Hopefully, we can keep the momentum that we built (against Anchorage),” Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle said. “When you had a little bit of success, with the start that we had to this season, you don’t want a bye. You want to keep going and rolling.”
And a difficult February schedule will really test Northern Michigan, starting this weekend against Bowling Green. In their final four series, the Wildcats will play three teams in the top four of the WCHA standings (Bowling Green, Minnesota State, and Michigan Tech) and an Alaska team that will be trying to lock up a playoff spot.
If Northern Michigan is going to make a move, they’ll rely on their senior leaders.
“I think teams have to be a little bit more aware of what we’re capable of,” Kyle said.
Dominik Shine has 15 goals and 20 points in 22 games, while Gerard Hanson has five goals and 20 points in 28 games.
Fellow senior Shane Sooth has only played eight games this season, but has eight points since joining the team around the midpoint of the season.
“We played the whole first semester without Shane and he’s our top center,” Kyle said. “And if you look at (Shine’s) history, he just took off in the second half of the year. He’s doing that now, he’s playing at a higher level than he’s ever played at. And I think he’s the most dangerous guy in the league right now.”
Big showdown in Bemidji
The road to the MacNaughton Cup will go through Bemidji.
The WCHA’s championship trophy has, on occasion, made an appearance at Bemidji State’s Sanford Center, but never before has the home team been the one playing for it.
The cup likely won’t be in Bemidji this weekend, but when the Beavers host Michigan Tech on Friday and Saturday, it will feel like a championship series.
Beavers coach Tom Serratore said it’s going to be the biggest series in the short history of the Sanford Center, which opened in 2010.
“There’s no question,” Serratore said. “There’s a lot on the line, having the first- and second-place teams and being so tight in the standings, I don’t think there’s any question that this is going to be the biggest series we’ve had in this building.”
First-place Bemidji State is four points ahead of second-place Michigan Tech. Each team has just six games to play. They’re the only two teams so far to have clinched playoff spots.
The Beavers have 52 points while the Huskies have 48; Minnesota State still has an outside chance in third place with 39 points. BSU has been in first place essentially from wire-to-wire.
“This will have a huge say in who wins the MacNaughton Cup. It looks like it’s coming down to three teams,” Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson said. “This is why we play the game, this is why you put in all the hours and all the travel, so you can come to a series like this that will have a big outcome.”
The Beavers and the Huskies already split one series earlier this season in Houghton. BSU won 3-1 in Friday’s first game and the Huskies took the second by a 2-1 count.
— Four WCHA players made the Hobey Baker Award fan ballot: Bemidji State junior goaltender Michael Bitzer, Alabama-Huntsville junior forward Josh Kestner, Ferris State senior forward Gerald Mayhew and Michigan Tech freshman goaltender Angus Redmond.
— Lake Superior State goaltender Gordon Defiel ranks third nationally and first in the WCHA with saves, clocking in at 709. The junior led the NCAA with 1,148 stops as a freshman.
— Michigan Tech’s seven ties so far this season have matched the school record set by the 2008-09 (6-25-7) and 2013-14 (14-19-7) teams. The Huskies have lost just once in 2017 (at Notre Dame) and are on a nine-game unbeaten streak in WCHA play. Their last loss was Dec. 2 against Bemidji State.
— Minnesota State’s Marc Michaelis leads all NCAA freshmen with 31 points (11g-20a) and is fifth with an average of 1.11 points-per-game.
Players of the Week
Michigan Tech’s Reid Sturos (Offensive), Minnesota State’s Daniel Brickley (defensive) and Parker Tuomie (rookie) were named the WCHA players of the week.