Power play bites Huskies in Midland matchup

Huskies drop third straight


Beverly Buchinger | NIU Hockey

Junior forward Matt Martin skates during the Huskies’ season-opening matchup against John Carroll University on Sept. 16. (Beverly Buchinger | NIU Hockey)

By Alex Crowe, Assistant Sports Editor

Struggles on the power play cost NIU hockey game one of its two-game road series against the Midland University Warriors (4-17, 4-5 MCH), who snuck past the Huskies by a final score of 4-3 Friday in Fremont, Nebraska.

The loss extended NIU’s (2-21, 1-12 MCH) third to Midland this season, and extended the Huskies’ losing streak to three games. The loss also gave the Warriors their first win in six games.

Travel fatigue showed in the first period for NIU. The Huskies were pinned in their end early in the game and couldn’t execute a clean zone exit. Huskie junior goaltender Ben Vutci denied Midland attackers early in the first period and finished the game with 37 saves.

The Warriors finally broke Vutci with 5:28 left in the first period when freshman defenseman Jack Olson scored on the power play to give his team a 1-0 lead.

NIU had power play chances of their own in the first period – including a five-on-three advantage late in the period – but were unable to solve Midland freshman goaltender Nahuel Veyan. The 1-0 score held after the first 20 minutes.

The Huskies traveled to Nebraska on game day, and junior forward Matt Martin said the seven-hour trip was challenging but was not the only factor in the team’s slow start.

“Definitely the bus ride contributed a little bit,” Martin said of the team’s slow start. “Just penalties and a little bit of lack of communication.”

NIU found its legs in the second period and started generating speed through the neutral zone, pressuring Warriors defenders. NIU was able to draw even off the rush when senior forward Rodahn Evans found freshman forward Evan Rzeszutko streaking into the Midland zone, where Rzeszutko fired a shot past Veyan to even the game at 1-1 with 6:44 left in the second period.

Rzeszutko said the goal happened quickly because of the team’s neutral zone speed.

“The puck just kind of popped out, I kind of did a spin,” Rzeszutko said. “I just saw a lane – two-on-one – I just had to get a shot to the net and thankfully it went in.”

Midland responded three minutes later when a cross-ice pass by Olson found senior forward Fletcher Chun on the right side who sniped a shot short side over Vutci’s shoulder. Fletcher’s goal gave the Warriors a 2-1 lead heading to the final period.

The power play struggles continued into the third period. The Huskies received a man advantage 3:30 into the period with a chance to tie the game. Instead, the power play broke down and allowed a short-handed goal to Midland sophomore forward Zach Weber to extend the Warriors’ lead to 3-1.

Stoffers summed up the power play woes as a lack of execution.

“We have a really good game plan against these guys on the power play I think and didn’t necessarily execute, really, what we were trying to do,” Stoffers said. “Thinking too much potentially, not moving pucks. I think we obviously need to execute better.”

With the team trying to solve its power play issues, Martin said bad puck bounces forcing players out of position led to some trying to be the hero, and thus led to a bad day on the power play.

“We have our set positions we get set up in and … the puck really wasn’t buncing to us,” Martin said. “Sometimes we can get jumbled up in different spots. Maybe a little forcing too – trying to force pucks when we don’t need to. So, I think just not make an easy pass and try to make the perfect play.”

The Huskies didn’t quit on the game down 3-1 in the third period. Senior forward Hunter Wahl received a breakaway pass from senior forward Hunter Pierce, and Wahl just snuck the puck through Veyan to get NIU back within a goal.

Shortly after Wahl’s goal, NIU got their fifth and final chance on the power play. The power play was cut short after a mishandle by Evans led to junior defenseman Austin Walny getting a slashing penalty. Midland junior defenseman Zach Eddington scored on the ensuing power play to put Midland back up by two goals with 6:16 left in the game.

NIU still pressured Midland even after going down 4-2. Senior forward Drake Gieseke found Martin in the neutral zone for a one-on-one with Midland junior defenseman Jack Royer. Martin undressed Royer for a free chance on Veyan, and Martin deked to his backhand to beat Veyan and get NIU back within a goal with 4:56 remaining.

Martin credited Gieseke for starting the play he was able to finish.

“Linemate Drake Gieseke made a good play to me – just kind of knocked the puck to me,” Martin said. “I had a one-on-one and made a move, had a breakaway, and went backhand and it went in.”

NIU frantically tried to equalize in the final five minutes, but Veyan turned away the remaining Huskie shots to seal a 4-3 win for Midland.

With both teams struggling to win games, Rzesutsko said the team is still confident they can beat Midland and can take advantage of the Warriors’ gritty play style.

“We know in the standings they’re (Midland) kind of hanging there right around where we are. So, they’re nothing special,” Rzeszutko said. “They’re not disciplined, they take a lot of penalties. So, we just got to get under their skin and make sure you don’t retaliate.”

After a tightly contested game, Stoffers said the mistakes on the power play and in the defensive zone ultimately lost NIU the game.

“It was more on us today. I think more than anything we lost the game,” Stoffers said. “We got scored on on our own power play … We didn’t score on a five-on-three. Didn’t take care of the puck. And our D (defensive) zone was really bad a couple of times … We beat ourselves and we didn’t deserve to win today.”

The Huskies have one more chance to beat the Warriors in the regular season at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Sidner Ice Arena in Fremont, Nebraska.

The game will be streamed on the Midland University StretchLive channel.