The middle of the standings are so log-jammed in the homestretch of the 10-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s regular season that the six teams residing from fourth place to seventh — there’s a three-way tie for seventh — are separated by a mere three points.
For UAA (12-10-3, 8-8-3 WCHA), which remains fourth, those circumstances make a lost opportunity — Friday night’s 3-1 loss to visiting Northern Michigan at Sullivan Arena — ache all that much more.
“That’s one loss that stings,’’ said UAA senior goaltender Chris Kamal.
The Seawolves’ five-game point streak in league games (4-0-1) vanished Friday, much like their power-play has gone missing for weeks now.
Granted, UAA’s lone goal Friday came with the man advantage — Dylan Hubbs swept home a first-period rebound after Andrew Pettitt made a spin move in the right circle and threw a backhander on net — but UAA’s power play has hit the skids.
Hubbs’ strike snapped a string of 21 consecutive fruitless power plays. UAA, which went 1 of 6 Friday, has converted 1 of 24 power-play chances in the last six games and 2 of 33 in the last eight games.
“It’s killing us,’’ said Seawolves coach Matt Thomas.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats (10-11-2, 8-6-1 WCHA, sixth place) made sure their power play made a difference. They cashed in twice, with junior defenseman Mitch Jones striking for his first two goals of the season.
Jones’ low laser from atop the right circle in the first period skirted massive traffic in front of Kamal to open the scoring. And his wrister from the left point midway through the game likewise threaded through multiple bodies in front of Kamal.
“Great screens on both of those,’’ Jones said. “That’s why they went in. I don’t have that hard a shot.’’
Kamal credited the Wildcats with obstructing his sight-line.
“They had a great net presence there,’’ he said. “Usually, I’ll be able to see through and react to the puck, but they did a good job getting in front, and that D-man did a good job of getting the shots through.’’
Jones’ second goal earned Northern Michigan a 2-1 edge that lasted deep into the third period in a game often played at a breakneck pace.
UAA killed a Northern Michigan power play early in the period and Kamal snuffed Ryan Kesti’s point-blank bid with more than eight minutes left. But less than a minute later, Wildcats winger Reed Steckel walked out of the right corner, drove to the top of Kamal’s crease and swept in a shot that furnished a 3-1 cushion.
“If you want to see how to go to the net, there it is,’’ Jones said.
Though UAA outshot Northern Michigan, 23-17, the Seawolves didn’t give themselves much of a chance on some of their best opportunities against Wildcats red-shirt freshman and workhorse Mathias Dahlstrom. Dahlstrom stopped 22 shots to raise his season save percentage to .925.
Blake Tatchell missed the net on a short-handed 2 on 1, for instance. Brad Duwe missed the net on a 2 on 1 at even strength. And Brett Cameron and Chase Van Allen, who had an assist, each rifled bids from the slot over the crossbar.
“Right now, we’re holding ourselves to a high standard — winning,’’ Thomas said. “I don’t think we were quite there tonight. We were an inch away — from hitting the net, from making a play, from getting in the shot lane, from getting a stick in a lane.’’
With so many teams within striking distance of UAA in the race for home ice in the first round of the playoffs — only the top four teams earn home ice — Saturday night’s series finale with Northern Michigan looms as critical.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been in a place like that — we’ve been down and out the last couple years,’’ Kamal said. “Now, these games have a lot of pressure and we really wanted these points tonight. We have to get them (Saturday).’’
UAA slipped to 9-3-1 overall on home ice. Northern Michigan improved to 5-8-1 on the road.
Pettitt led the Seawolves with four shots on goal and winger Blake Leask had three.
Winger John Siemer joined Northern Michigan at the holiday break and has proved a productive addition. He furnished two assists Friday and owns 2-5—7 totals in six games.
The Wildcats have four league games in hand on the Seawolves and at least one league game in hand on every team in the WCHA. Still, Jones said he and his teammates don’t approach that scenario as if they’re entitled to points.
“You have to go out and win them,’’ he said.
Northern Michigan has won four of its last five WCHA games, with three of those victories coming on the road.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
NMU 1 1 1 — 3
UAA 1 0 0 — 1
First Period — 1, NMU, Jones 1 (Vigier, Siemer), 11:27 (pp); 2, UAA, Hubbs 3 (Pettitt, Van Allen), 14:35 (pp). Penalties — Shine, NMU (slashing), :05; Nowick, NMU (hooking), 4:57; Pettitt, UAA (charging the goalie), 11:05; Baker, NMU (tripping), 12:45; Cameron, UAA (unsportsmanlike conduct), 17:17.
Second Period — 3, NMU, Jones 2 (Hanson, Siemer), 12:01 (pp). Penalties — Friesen, UAA (contact to head), 2:44; Daugherty, NMU (cross-checking), 3:50; Coldwell, UAA (holding the stick), 10:37; Sproule, UAA (boarding), 17:16.
Third Period — 4, NMU, Seckel 7 (Baker, Shine). Penalties — Eibler, NMU (cross-checking), 2:34; Bailey, UAA (interference), 4:37; Baker, NMU (cross-checking), 13:52.
Shots on goal — NMU 4-8-5—17. UAA 8-6-9—23.
Power-play Opportunities — NMU 2 of 6. UAA 1 of 6.
Goalies — NMU, Dahlstrom, 9-9-2 (23 shots-22 saves). UAA, Kamal, 5-3-1 (17 shots-14 saves).
A — 2,399 (6,251). T — 2:25.
Referees — Brett Klosowski, Mark Wilkins. Assistant referees — William Moran, John Conoy.