MARQUETTE - With four of the Northern Michigan University hockey team's first five opponents all ranked in the USCHO.com top 20 poll this week and two of the four sitting in the top 10, Wildcats head coach Walt Kyle is pleased with his team's 4-4-2 record and No. 19 ranking.
What gets to him, however, is where the 'Cats sit in the CCHA standings - last - and the fact that Northern could be sitting in a logjam for second had it not given up a goal with six tenths of a second on the clock against Michigan at home and in the final 2:13 against Miami on Saturday on the road.
Both were three-point nights that turned into one-point nights for the 'Cats.
Northern Michigan University freshman forward Cohen Adair (22) brings the puck up the ice against Michigan on Nov. 3 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. Adair’s five goals leads the Wildcats heading into a CCHA series at Ohio State this weekend. (Journal file photo by Zach Jay)
"It's a half full, half empty approach," Kyle said. "The glass half empty is we're in last place. We just had 18 league points in front of us and we got five. Not happy with that."
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, life doesn't get any easier this weekend, even though its next opponent is unranked.
Northern plays a two-game series tonight and tomorrow at 7:05 p.m. in Columbus, Ohio against the Ohio State Buckeyes, who trail the all-time series against NMU 36-35-3.
Of the Wildcats' 36 all-time victories over the Buckeyes, only nine have come in Columbus with 23 losses and one tie in 1979.
The Wildcats were swept in Columbus last season at about the same time by 4-1 scores each night with the 'Cats last win in Columbus coming in November of 2009.
"Last year we got beat there as bad as we've been beat anywhere," Kyle said.
The sweep helped propel the Buckeyes to the top of the CCHA standings and a No. 4 national ranking. The Buckeyes dropped from the rankings and tumbled down the league standings, however, once the calendar turned from December to January.
OSU only won more game the rest of the season,
finished in a tie for eighth in the CCHA and were bounced in the first round of the league playoffs by Notre Dame.
Since Jan. 1, the Buckeyes have only won three games and at 2-6-3 overall this season and 1-3-2 in the CCHA with a shootout win, sit one point ahead of NMU in a tie with Bowling Green State for ninth in the league heading into the weekend at six points.
No. 8 Notre Dame leads the league with 12 points, followed by Miami at 11 and Alaska with 10. Five others are at 8 or 9 points.
"We need to start creating some league wins and our goal is to be good, not average," said Kyle, whose team is 1-3-2 in CCHA play having lost two shootouts.
To be good and improve upon the slow start to CCHA play, the Wildcats will need to find a way to win on Friday nights and improve their penalty kill.
NMU is 1-3-1 on Friday nights as opposed to being 3-1-1 on Saturday nights with the lone Friday win coming against Wisconsin in Green Bay to open the season.
In the Wildcats' three Friday night losses, they've been outscored 15-6.
Kyle said the 'Cats have not valued the puck on Friday nights as strongly as they value the puck on Saturday nights.
Translation: Too many turnovers.
"We have not valued the puck on Fridays," Kyle said. We've gotten into a real turnover mess. I think the biggest thing is how we take care of the puck.
"Can we play the kind of game we want to play and not get caught in this game where we are on our heels and giving them the puck and they are coming at us and we're defending, defending, defending all the time?"
The Wildcats penalty kill has been even more troubling than the turnovers.
After finishing last season as the second-ranked penalty kill in the CCHA and fifth in the nation with an 86 percent kill rate, NMU is last in the CCHA and 57th out of 59 teams in the nation, killing only 74.4 percent of power plays.
Against Miami, NMU gave up four power play goals with one coming on a 5-on-3 advantage for the RedHawks.
"Our penalty kill is not great right now, but it's not awful," senior forward Matt Thurber said. "We just have to tighten it up a little bit. We struggled to clear the puck. We had opportunities to get the puck out of the zone and we throw it into their skates and they keep it in and keep us in the zone longer."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.