That's right, our ever popular "Opposition Q&A" extends itself to our 2nd sport this season, as we bring you the views of the teams Wisconsin will be facing on a week in and week out basis.
Wisconsin travels to Green Bay, WI as the road team in a series against Northern Michigan this weekend and we sat down with Matt Wellens from the Mining Journal in Marquette, MI to talk NMU hockey. So, for the latest in NMU news ahead of the series make sure you check out his 1401 blog for the Mining Journal and follow him on twitter for their side of this weekend's series.
Let's dive right into the first ever Hockey Opposition Q&A, shall we?
MTB: NMU's last trip to the NCAA tournament was pretty recently, is getting back to that level a realistic goal for this team in 2012-13?
Matt Wellens: After how close NMU came to making the NCAA tournament — tied for 15th in the Pairwise — last season despite only winning 17 games, I'll say yes. The Wildcats strength of schedule was one of the toughest in the country and it should be again this year with the Badgers, Nebraska-Omaha, St. Cloud State and a rising Michigan Tech for nonconference opponents. I also think the subject of your next question gives Northern a chance to go really far, whether its conference and nonconference foes have good seasons or not.
MTB: One of the most underrated netminders in college hockey in my opinion happens to be Jared Coreau. He's a junior this season and appears to have won the role of No. 1 outright. Will he be the key to this season for the Wildcats?
Wellens: You're right about Coreau being underrated. NHL scouts seem to love him — so much so that Calgary tried to sign him this offseason — but the rest of college hockey is pulling out its tallest ladder and looking past the 6-foot-4 goaltender.
Northern does have a very experienced group of defensemen in front of Coreau, but the Wildcats would enter a world of pain if they had to turn to true freshman Michael Doan, who is the only other option with Mathias Dahlstrom ineligible this season.
MTB: Who's scoring goals for NMU this season? I ask because the likes of Tyler Gron (CCHA's 4th leading scorer), Justin Florek, and Andrew Cherniwchan are all gone from last season.
Wellens: Great question. It's the question head coach Walt Kyle is even asking, though he seems to ask that every year and players like a Florek, Gron and Cherniwchan seem to step up.
Sophomore Reed Seckel and senior Matt Thurber (I think Badger fans know him) will anchor the Wildcats' top line with Kory Kaunisto and they should lead the team in scoring. Also look for junior Stephan Vigier to be very productive.
Junior Erik Higby, now healthy, and freshmen Cohen Adair and Justin Rose also showed a lot of potential in the exhibition. To be a potent offensive team, NMU will need more than just its veterans to score. The 'Cats need the next Mark Olver to emerge.
MTB: This appears to be a team that will need to build it's momentum from the defensive part of the game in 2012-13. Who stands out as a defender for NMU?
Wellens: C.J. Ludwig and Wade Epp have emerged as one of the best shutdown pairings in the CCHA. They remind me of Nathan Oystrick and Geoff Waugh, minus the offensive impact of Oystrick.
The player may be the most like Oystrick is the guy wearing his number, No. 74 Mitch Jones. The sophomore brings a real offensive punch to the blue line, but still has some work to do before being considered a shutdown defenseman.
MTB: Final Year in the CCHA, your thoughts on leaving and going back to the WCHA starting next season?
Wellens: I'm sad to see the CCHA go. I wish it could have stayed around in some form. It's a very competitive, well marketed and organized league. The people in the CCHA front office get what it means to be a major college hockey conference and it's a shame that front office will be broken up.
That being said, this is a good move for Northern Michigan in the long run. In college hockey, the Wildcats are a mid-major school. While NMU has traditionally been competitive with the big schools in the WCHA and CCHA, now the Wildcats are in a mid-major league that they should be able to contend in every year for a conference title and spot in the NCAA tournament. More wins should also mean more butts in the seats. Two home conference games instead of one nonconference game against rival Michigan Tech will help as well.
MTB: Prediction for this series?
Wellens: Recently, Northern has been a thorn in the Badgers' side, winning three of the last four games all in Madison, but this is a much more mature Badgers' team than what NMU saw last year. I'll chicken out and call for a split. Coreau steals Friday night's game for NMU while the Badgers get a key goal late to win a tight game Saturday.
*Bonus Question: How many NMU fans are coming down and what are some traditions from the fans we should be aware of?
Wellens: I've encountered a fair amount of people in Marquette this week who said they are heading to Green Bay. NMU also has a large population of alumni in Brown County and the Fox Cities, which is where I grew up. Former NMU President Les Wong once told me that outside of Marquette, the alumni base in Northeast Wisconsin is second only to the Twin Cities. The Resch Center will for sure be a sea of red, but I wouldn't be surprised to see at least 2,000 Wildcat fans, if not more.
As for traditions, NMU fans do the same drum-cadenced sieve chant after goals as Wisconsin and Cornell fans do. NMU is still one of the "C Ya Bitch" schools for penalties. When "last minute of play in this period" is announced, you'll hear NMU fans respond with "And Tech still sucks" whether NMU is playing Michigan Tech or not. I seem to remember Badger fans joining Wildcat fans in on this one year during a holiday tournament at the Kohl Center.
My advice to Badger fans is if you see people in bright yellow and hard hats, go up and say hi to them. They're called Puckheads and if you become friends with them, they'll probably by you a beer or six.