Huskies prepare for road showdown against McKendree


Skyler Kisellus

Players from NIU hockey celebrate around their goal moments after securing their first win of the season on Saturday. NIU defeated McKendree 5-3, splitting the weekend series. (Skyler Kisellus | Northern Star)

By Alex Crowe, Assistant Sports Editor

DeKALB – NIU hockey is gearing up to travel four hours south to wrap up its season series against the McKendree University Bearcats on Friday and Saturday in O’Fallon. 

The teams split their first weekend series in early December, with McKendree (9-11, 7-5 MCH) winning the first game 6-1 and the Huskies (4-22, 1-13 MCH) taking game two 5-3. NIU’s win over the Bearcats was its first win of the season and snapped a McKendree six-game winning streak. 

McKendree enters the weekend riding high after back-to-back wins over Midland University by final scores of 4-3 (shootout win) and 8-2. The Huskies are fresh off its first-weekend series sweep as a division one program over Drury University.

Junior goaltender Ben Vutci said the team feels confident from the wins after struggling to find success most of this season. 

“The energy is high,” Vutci said. “It felt really good to get a much-needed, huge win … (in) both games too because we knew we were the better team and we had to go out there and prove it.” 

The wins come at a good time for the Huskies, who are just three weeks away from the Midwest College Hockey playoffs. 

Head coach Brad Stoffers acknowledged the team still has steps to take but is trending in the right direction.

“It’s not all roses and sunshine,” Stoffers said. “The guys that are here, the guys that are healthy, the guys that are in the lineup, are excited. They’re starting to feel it, they’re gelling at the right time and there’s a certain energy in the room.”

Getting much-needed wins provided a spark to the Huskies, but the team knows it can’t look past its opponent. Staying out of the penalty box in its series against Drury plagued NIU, and Vutci pointed to the team’s discipline as crucial to having success against a Bearcats team they’ve had mixed results against. 

“For us personally, we need to stay more disciplined – out of the box. We gave Drury way too many five-on-threes, way too many power plays,” Vutci said. “We’ve beat them (McKendree) before, we’ve also lost to them before … we can’t take them lightly at all.”

Stoffers wants the team to realize and embrace its identity even after the most successful weekend of the season. 

“We can’t take anybody lightly. I mean, it’s not us this year. We don’t have that kind of team no matter who we play,” Stoffers said. “We’re not … necessarily favored in any game, even with the way we’ve been playing lately. We still need to have that underdog mentality.”

Having already defeated the Bearcats this season, Stoffers said extending the two-game winning streak doesn’t need to be complicated. 

“We’ll do our normal pre-scout and watch our game last time we played them … what worked, what didn’t work,” Stoffers said. “It’s not really a magic sauce. I think if we play the right way and do the things that make us successful, I think we’ll be competitive.”

With a tough battle on the horizon, Vutci said the team’s mental toughness that built up over the course of the season will help them return the punches McKendree throws at them. 

“We’ve done a good job weathering storms all year long,” Vutci said. “We’re not a team of guys that’s going to complain that much when, you know, it all hits the fan … Whether they come out hot, whether they come out flat, we have to have a good start. You know, we’re not going to sit there and get hit in the face. We’re going to hit them in the face.”

NIU and McKendree clash for the first game of the weekend series at 7:45 p.m. on Friday and finish their regular season series at 3:15 p.m. on Saturday at the McKendree Metro Rec Plex in O’Fallon. 

The games are available to watch via McKendree’s Great Lakes Valley Conference streaming network