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Monday, March 16, 2009

Wildcats moving on to CCHA semifinals

By Susannah Nichols/Northern Michigan Beat Writer

Earlier this season, the Northern Michigan Wildcats didn't look like they'd have a chance of finishing in the top half of the conference, much less the hope of advancing to the NCAA Tournament.

But after a mid-season turnaround, the Wildcats have refused to surrender their season without a fight. Last weekend, they beat the Miami RedHawks in three games to advance to the CCHA Championship this weekend at Joe Louis Arena.

The 'Cats lost Friday's game 3-2, despite a 37-save performance by goalie Brian Stewart. In the last series between these two teams, Miami outshot NMU by a mind-boggling margin (91-27 over both games) and managed to control the offensive energy in this game as well. Nick Sirota gutted out a late-game goal to make the game close, but the 'Cats were put in a must-win situation in the next night's game.

Miami struck first in Saturday's contest, but Jared Brown, with an assist from Ray Kaunisto, retaliated with a goal to lock the teams in a 1-1 tie at the first intermission.

Sirota capitalized on a NMU power play early in the second period. Erik Gustafsson and Mark Olver earned assists on the goal. But the 'Cats couldn't enjoy their lead for long, as Miami knotted it up less than thirty seconds later.

Despite being outshot 13-3 in the final period, Stewart stayed solid and gave his team a chance in overtime. 5:12 into the extra period, Gustafsson set up Gregor Hanson for the game-winning goal.

Stewart finished with 39 saves.

Sunday's game got off to a rough start for the Wildcats (18-16-5) when Andrew Cherniwichan got a major penalty and game misconduct. But Olver turned the tables on Miami and lit the lamp with an unassisted shorthanded goal.

The 'Cats widened their lead in the second period when Mike Maltese netted his third of the season.

Miami pulled their goalie with two-and-a-half minutes left in the game and it paid off when they cut the lead to 2-1. They continued to play with the extra attacker, and Stewart fended off a few more shots by the RedHawks, but Sirota scored the empty-net goal to seal the win, and the series, for the Wildcats.

Stewart finished with 41 saves in Sunday's game.

NMU will take on top-seeded Notre Dame this Friday at 4:35 p.m. Should they win, they will face the victor of the Alaska-Michigan matchup in the title game Saturday night.

MiCHO staffers will be out in full force this weekend in Motown. Check back here for real-time blogs and game recaps.

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