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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

COLUMN: How NIU Hockey can turn its season around

Courtesy NIU Hockey
Freshman forward Jeff Shirkey battles for the puck against a Kent State defender on Sept.15. The Huskies have struggled to open the season, losing their first eight games. (Courtesy of NIU Hockey)

To say the start of the 2023-2024 season has been a disappointment is a massive understatement for NIU Hockey, who have yet to win a game with a quarter of the season in the books.

A season that began with so much optimism – due to the eight new players with junior hockey experience – has gone completely off the rails due to injuries and ineligible players. 

In its most recent matchup against Midland University on Saturday, NIU was without five of its players due to the injury bug, and were without the two ineligible players: sophomore forward Cam Pathana and soon-to-be-freshman defenseman Nick Castillo. 

Luckily, the season still has a long way to go. Injuries will heal, and the second semester will see the return of Pathana and the debut of Castillo.

Until then, the Huskies have major problems that need to be addressed in order to get the season back on track. 


Injuries to freshmen forwards Micah Maldonado and Walker Smith are massive losses on the offensive side for NIU, meaning the other players on the roster need to step up until Maldonado and Smith return. 

My eyes shift to freshman forward Jeff Shirkey as a player that needs to find his groove. Shirkey played junior hockey alongside Smith for the Decatur Blaze of the United States Premier Hockey League, posting 83 points – including 37 goals – in 125 games. 

Through eight games this season, Shirkey has just two assists and no goals. As a player that put up solid numbers at a high level of junior hockey, NIU needs Shirkey to find his form while Smith and Maldonado work towards getting back into the lineup. 

The eye test says that Shirkey’s skill has gotten him some scoring opportunities, he just hasn’t capitalized on them yet. For NIU to survive this massive string of missing players, Shirkey will need to find a way to put some of those scoring opportunities in the net. 


It has been a frustrating start to the season, with four of NIU’s eight losses being one-goal defeats. 

An area the frustration is shown is in the penalties column of the scoresheet. The Huskies are giving their opponents way too many chances on the power play, and it’s hurting them. 

Through eight games, NIU has six players with 20 or more penalty minutes. That number is way too high this early in the season.

One example comes from NIU’s 4-2 loss to the University of Illinois on Sept. 23. Illinois’ third goal – the game-winner – came on the power play because of a face mask penalty on Maldonado. NIU got the game to 3-2 late in the game, but an empty-net goal from Illinois sealed it. Without the penalty, NIU works the game to a tie and has a chance to win. 

The fact is, NIU is taking way too many penalties at inopportune times, and it’s costing them. Playing short-handed or without key players for 10 minutes of a game is making the difference between a one-goal loss and a tie game that the Huskies have a real shot at winning. 

To combat the discipline issues, the Huskies need to stop the face mask penalty that is resulting in ejections. NIU has taken four face mask penalties in eight games this season. 

Retaliation-type penalties are also very apparent. The age-old “the ref always sees the second one,” holds true for NIU. Too many times frustration boils over, and the Huskies retaliate to a play they don’t like, sending them to the penalty box. 

The players must keep their heads and allow frustration to roll off their shoulders in order to keep the penalty numbers down. If the Huskies keep up their current pace of penalty-taking, expect the game results to stay the same. 


There is still plenty of time for NIU Hockey to get things turned around. With the amount of injuries, ineligibility and adversity they are facing, they deserve a bit of a break.

Despite the adversity they are currently dealing with, things such as better discipline and better performances from high-caliber players are crucial to getting through this rough patch and surviving until reinforcements arrive.  

The Huskies have a tall task ahead of them this weekend, as No. 7 University of Jamestown rolls into town for a two-game series. The series begins Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Canlan Ice Sports in West Dundee. 

The game will be streamed on the NIU Hockey YouTube channel. 

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