MARQUETTE - With five wins and a tie in six games since Jan. 1, the Northern Michigan University hockey team has emerged as one of the hottest teams in the CCHA to start the second half of the season.
The other program torching through the league this month is the Wildcats' opponent this week - The Alaska Nanooks.
"They are a team that is really on the upswing right now," NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. "They have a couple of lines that are very, very dangerous. They have tremendous team speed, a great counter attack."
Northern Michigan University sophomore forward Reed Seckel battles Alaska senior forward Jarret Granberg for the puck in the Nanook zone on Nov. 23 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
After picking up a win in overtime and another in a shootout against Alaska in Marquette over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Wildcats head north to Fairbanks to wrap up the regular season-series against the Nanooks at 11 p.m. EST on Friday and Saturday.
NMU (11-10-4 overall, 5-9-4 in CCHA) flew out of Sawyer International Airport Thursday morning with stops in Detroit and Seattle before arriving in Fairbanks. The 'Cats will return via Seattle, Minneapolis and Green Bay on Sunday, bus back to Marquette and then take a week off before a home series on Feb. 8-9 against Ferris State.
"It's a tough weekend for travel, but once we are up there, everything is the same," said Scott Macaulay, the NMU senior defenseman and captain who scored the game-winning OT goal in a 4-3 win over Alaska on Nov. 23.
"They have a lot of good team speed, especially up front. They have a lot of skilled forwards."
Alaska (10-8-4, 8-7-3) has spent the past two weeks on the road playing in the lower 48 states, blazing a path of destruction that resembles the Carlson Center's pregame video featuring an angry polar bear and his fighter jet destroying CCHA campuses and the planet Earth.
The Nanooks began 2013 with a sweep of Michigan - 5-4 and 4-1 - on Jan. 11-12 in Ann Arbor, followed by a 5-4 and 2-1 sweep of No. 7 Notre Dame in South Bend.
While the Wolverines were struggling heading into the series having just lost games to the U.S. National Team Development Program's Under-18 squad and Bowling Green State at Yost Ice Arena, Jeff Jackson's Fighting Irish were alone atop the CCHA and No. 5 in the nation.
"We just got done playing Ohio State and Miami before that," NMU junior defenseman CJ Ludwig said. "They are both very quick teams so it's nothing we haven't seen."
Five different Nanooks scored in the two OT contests at the Berry Events Center Nov. 23-24, including three of Alaska's four leading scorers - freshman Tyler Morley and seniors Jarrett Granberg and Andy Taranto.
All three had goals against the Irish as well with Granberg scoring twice in the third period on Friday to give the Nanooks a 4-3 lead with less that nine minutes to play and 5-4 lead with three seconds left on the Compton Family Ice Arena scoreboard.
Then there is junior Cody Kunyk, the team's fifth-leading scorer, who had two goals and an assist against Michigan.
"They are as fast as anybody in the league," Kyle said.
"They always have great offensive speed and they always have great counter speed. Kunyk is one of the best players in the league without a doubt. Morley, who has come in as a freshman, has done a great job. Granberg is having a great year. Taranto is a hell of a player. They are really, really strong up front.
"They are a dangerous team when they have the puck."
The Wildcats were not at full strength when the two sides met in November with senior forward Matt Thurber and freshman forward Justin Rose both suspended by Kyle for a violation of a team rule.
Junior forward Erik Higby sat out Friday's OT win while serving a one-game suspension for a contact to the head game disqualification he picked up the weekend before. To top if off, junior forward Stephan Vigier left midway through the first period of Game 3 on Nov. 24 with a leg injury after giving NMU a short-lived 1-0 lead.
To counter the key losses at forward, sophomore defenseman Jake Baker and freshman defenseman Ryan Trenz both played at forward against Alaska in key roles on the second and third lines.
Meanwhile sophomores Reed Seckel, who scored a goal in Game 2, and Ryan Daugherty were forced to eat up a significant amount of minutes.
Despite the struggles putting together a lineup, the series proved to be one of the few bright spots for NMU during a rough first half.
NMU received rare goals from junior Jake Johnson, senior forward Kory Kaunisto and junior defenseman Wade Epp while also gaining five out of a possible six points in the CCHA standings.
"I thought the guys that were in the last time we played did a phenomenal job.," Kyle said. "We really gutted it up in that series.
"We were fortunate enough to have success against them."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens