MARQUETTE, Mich. - The Northern Michigan University hockey team is ready and poised to take the next step. NMU enters the 2009-10 season with its top three scorers back as well as a returning All-America defenseman and seasoned goaltenders. Last year the squad began the first half of the season 3-12-3 with two shootout wins. But when the calendar flipped to 2009, the ’Cats roared to a 16-5-2 mark to end the season at 19-17-5.
“We have a team coming back that is very experienced,” said Walt Kyle. “Over the last two years we have played a lot of freshmen and sophomores and given those guys ice time. The plan was that we would have an experienced team this year.”
Mark Olver is last year’s top point and goal producer with 35 and 16 respectively. He also had a team-leading six power-play goals and chipped in with 19 assists, which was good for third on the team. “Mark just had an average season last year. He had a great freshman year and is capable of so much more,” said Kyle.
Greger Hanson and Erik Gustafsson tied for second on the team in points last year, each with 34. Hanson had 13 goals and 21 assists. Gustafsson, last year’s Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s Best Offensive Defenseman and an All-American, led the ’Cats with 30 assists. He also had four goals. “Gustafsson is one of the better players in college hockey,” said Kyle. The departed Nick Sirota (12-15-27) is the lone scorer in last year’s the top four scorers who is not returning.
Kyle is entering his eighth season at NMU where he has an overall coaching record of 141-121-26. He led the 2008-09 ’Cats to Joe Louis Arena and the CCHA championships for the sixth time while behind the bench. NMU finished the conference part of the schedule with an 11-12-5 record. NMU, the post-season sixth seed, defeated Michigan State at home in the first round and then went on the road and knocked off the Miami RedHawks in three games after dropping the first game and winning the second game in overtime. It was the second consecutive year the ’Cats won on the road in the second round of the playoffs. Northern lost to Notre Dame in the CCHA semifinals (1-2) but defeated Alaska in the consolation game (2-0).
Along with Sirota, also gone are forwards Tim Hartung (3-10-13) and Nathan Sigmund (1-0-1); defensemen Blake Cosgrove (0-13-13), Ben Lindemulder (3-4-7) and Derek May (1-6-7). Goaltender Derek Janzen also decided not to return to the team. He appeared in six games last year and registered a 3.14 goal-against average and a .897 save-percentage.
Among the experienced forwards returners are Jared Brown (12-13-25), Phil Fox (11-7-18), Justin Florek (9-8-17) and Ray Kaunisto (7-7-14) all who were ranked among NMU’s top 10 point getters a year ago. Brown had a team-high four game-winning goals. “Justin Florek and how he improved was one of the best stories,” said Kyle.
Other forwards back include Matt Butcher (2-3-5), Andrew Cherniwchan (4-8-12), Tyler Gron (4-4-8), Nicholas Kosinski (1-0-1), Mike Maltese (3-6-9) and Billy Smith (3-7-10). According to Kyle he likes the group of forwards that he has coming back. “This is a strong a group of forwards that I have had since I’ve been here,” said Kyle. Newcomers who could join in the mix include: Kory Kaunisto, Brian Nugent and Chad Pietila.
Kaunisto, the younger brother of Ray, skated for the Lincoln Stars of the United State Hockey League (USHL) in 2008-09 season and tallied 17 points (7-10). Nugent appeared in 53 games for the Victoria Grizzlies of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) and had 52 points with 27 goals and 25 assists. Pietila should be familiar with Marquette as he played for the Marquette Rangers for two seasons in the North American Hockey League (NAHL). Last year he appeared in 57 games for the Rangers and registered 61 points on 25 goals and 36 assists.
This year’s NMU blue line will be anchored by Gustafsson . Other veteran blueliners include seniors Alan Dorich and TJ Miller who are coming back from injuries suffered last year, and juniors Andrew Fernandez, and Erik Spady.
Four newcomers will be needed to fill some holes. The rookies are Wade Epp, Kyle Follmer, Austin Handley and Scott Macaulay.
Epp had five points - all on assists - last year with the Victoria Grizzlies of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL). Follmer skated for the Lincoln Stars of the USHL and had 31 points on six goals and 25 assists. Handley also played in the USHL but for the Des Moines Buccaneers and tallied 13 points (5-8) in 58 games. Macaulay recorded 49 points on seven goals and 42 assists for the Winnipeg Saints of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL).
Brian Stewart enters the 2009-10 campaign as the top goaltender for the ‘Cats. He concluded last season with a record of 14-13-3, a 2.32 goal-against average and a .925 save-percentage. “He is a guy who can carry this team on his back,” said Kyle. Backing up Stewart will be returnees Devan Hartigan and Erik Wetton. Hartigan appeared in six games last year and was 1-3-2 with a 2.48 goal-against average and a .903 save-percentage.
Reid Ellingson, who played for NMU in 2007-08, returns after playing last year for the Green Bay Gamblers. With the Gamblers he was 24-11-3 with a 2.72 goal-against average and a .902 save-percentage.
Northern will join Alaska, Lake Superior State and Nebraska-Omaha in CCHA cluster play and will meet each team four times during the course of the year. The ‘Cats will face in back-to-back weekends two participants from the 2009 Frozen Four to kickoff the 2009-10 schedule, playing host to Bemidji State Oct. 23-24 and Miami the following weekend (Oct. 30-31). Nine of NMU’s first 10 games will be against teams from last year’s NCAA Tournament (Minnesota-Duluth, Bemidji State, Miami, Ohio State and Notre Dame).
NMU goes on the road for this year’s installment of the Superior Cup against Michigan Tech and Minnesota-Duluth. The ’Cats also face MTU again Dec. 18 in Marquette and Jan. 12 in Houghton. To begin the new year the Northern plays in the Dodge Holiday Classic at the University of Minnesota. NMU faces Clarkson (Jan. 2) in its first game and then will either play CCHA foe Bowling Green State University or the Gophers the next night (Jan. 3).
If the ’Cats can put together a solid year, they can go very far. The pieces are there for this hockey team to advance where no NMU hockey team has gone in a very long time. “Your season always depends on leadership and chemistry and those things can’t be determined until the season starts,” said Kyle. NMU has proven the past couple of years they know how to turn it on in the second half of the season for that playoff push. This team has the maturity and skill to put together a whole season.
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