By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
The defensive corps of Northern Michigan has an impressive 372 combined games played on the resume. The top pairing of Kyle Follmer and Scott Macaulay, both seniors, have amassed 96 points and 224 games played in their careers with the Wildcats.
But Friday night at CenturyLink Center Omaha, it was the UNO defense that looked unbeatable. UNO held no. 17 Northern Michigan to just 13 shots on net and skated off with a 5-2 victory in the Mavs’ 2012 home opener.
The win moves UNO to 2-1 on the season, and gives them their first win over a ranked opponent since beating then no. 1 Minnesota-Duluth 3-1 on Jan. 14, 2012.
“We could have beat a lot of teams, a lot of top teams with that performance tonight,” UNO Head Coach Dean Blais said. “Doesn’t matter in what league, we would have given anyone a good run for the game.”
The 13 shots against is the lowest total since the Mavs allowed just 10 to Western Michigan on Nov. 28, 2009. UNO held the Wildcats to 0-for-5 on the power play and never allowed NMU to sustain an attack.
“Our D have been real good so far, even in practice, they’re hard to beat,” UNO captain Brent Gwidt said. “I think they’re holding the line and making it hard on their forwards to get into the offensive zone.”
And they may be even better when they have the puck. Last weekend in Kansas City, more than half of UNO’s goals were scored by defensemen.
That trend was continued Friday when Michael Young opened the scoring at 10:36 of the first period. Young’s power play goal came just 10 seconds into the penalty.
Fellow defenseman Andrej Sustr added one of his own early in the third period to make it 5-1. Sustr and Young each have two goals and one assist on the season.
As a unit, Maverick defenseman have accounted for six of 12 goals and 14 of 32 points.
“I think that just shows we have a very well-rounded team offensively,” top line center Brock Montpetit said. “I think all four of our lines can score goals, and if a team is pressuring us down low like this team did quite a bit throughout the game, we can give it to our D and get some quality shots on net. Having a defensive corps that scores goals as a team is something that can bring a team really forward.”
Last weekend in Green Bay, Northern Michigan swept Wisconsin while only allowing the Badgers 40 shots and three goals in two games. Defensively, the Wildcats dominated the series against a team expected to finish in the top tier of the WCHA.
But from the drop of the puck, the Mavs showed they would be the team setting the tone. After the first period Northern Michigan had registered only one shot on goal while giving up 13 and allowing two UNO scores.
Montpetit, Young and Gwidt would all get on the board and build a 3-0 lead before the Wildcats finally put one past goalkeeper John Faulkner at 9:14 of the second. But alternate captain Matt White answered that score with his second of the season, 1:28 later, putting NMU back in a three-goal deficit.
Sustr’s goal at 6:49 of the third removed any hopes left on the Wildcat bench. Northern Michigan’s Reed Seckel ended the scoring 13:12 into the final period to make the final score 5-2.
Other than mishandling the puck on the first goal, and a minor lapse in concentration on the second, the Mavs were just about perfect.
“I think we had a few turnovers but other than that, that’s as good as we can play,” Blais said. “That’s as good as we’ve played in a long time. Even last year when we won a few games, it wasn’t like this.”
“We were skating, we were cutting down the passing lanes, guys were moving together, defensemen were doing their job. Obviously limiting a team like Northern (Michigan) to 13 shots is good team defense.”
Montpetit’s goal and two assists earned him the top star of the game. Matt White ended with a goal and an assist for the second star, Michael Young matched those numbers to earn the third star.
After just three games Montpetit is leading the team with one goal and six assists for seven points. Montpetit’s start is a far cry from his poor numbers last year when he had a line of just 6-11-17 and often found himself in the penalty box for careless penalties.
“Me personally I didn’t know if I was gonna struggle like I did last year or not, or (Ryan) Walters if he doesn’t have a big year,” Montpetit said. “But now that we’re an older team I think we’re playing a lot more maturely. Last year we’d get up, we’d get down, [we were] just kind of inconsistent throughout the year. This year we’ve played hard and we’ve really taken it to teams for a full three periods. I think that’s kind of our identity so far.”
Gwidt said that so far Montpetit has been amazing. The team is looking at Montpetit as being the team’s top center and is much more valuable than just the numbers he’s put up so far.
“As you can see, he’s doing a lot of the little things out there which many people in the stands or the media may not notice,” Gwidt said. “He’s doing things like winning faceoffs, quarterbacking the power play, being on the top penalty killing unit. So for our top center to be that consistent with play, our younger guys, our third and fourth line, they’re gonna look at stuff like that and it’s gonna feed off of everybody what he’s doing as our top center.”
When Northern Michigan swept away Wisconsin on the road last week the Badgers were ranked in the top 20. Those two victories catapulted the Wildcats into their own spot in the poll.
That doesn’t mean the goal of the weekend is to crack into the rankings for the first time this season.
“We’re always gonna go into each and every week with a hard-working mentality,” Gwidt said. “What we want to have is consistent work throughout the year and get better each week no matter who we’re playing. We obviously play in a good conference so there’s gonna be a lot of times we’re playing top 20 teams. Whether we playing a lower team or a higher team, we gotta get better every week.”