The Chargers got a huge win Sunday in their battle for a WCHA playoff spot, beating No. 19 Northern Michigan 4-2 at the Von Braun Center to earn a series split.
The Chargers (10-18-2 overall, 9-13-2 WCHA) got their first double-digit win season since the 2009-10 campaign, and moved back into sixth place in the WCHA standings with four games to go. UAH is five points behind fifth-place Michigan Tech, one point up on Alaska, and two up on Ferris State.
“When you play the top teams in the league, the best players have to be your best players,” UAH head coach Mike Corbett said. “And our best players were our best players, starting with Uhelski to Gosselin and Knight to Kestner and Poulsen. And Hans Gorowksy was his normal self.”
Goaltender Jordan Uhelski fought off a fierce NMU attack, stopping 34 of 36 Wildcat shots on goal.
“I feel tired, but ecstatic for the team and the guys,” Uhelski said. “I thought that was one of the best games we played all season, from the drop of the puck, to when we were up by two and they get one, to really be resilient and make sure we get that next one.”
“He played fantastic,” Corbett said of Uhelski. “And we need that in order to beat the top teams in the league.”
The Chargers got huge contributions from their top offensive players, Josh Kestner and Tyler Poulsen, who each got two goals.
“Our coach always said this is playoff time, even though it’s not necessarily the playoffs,” Kestner said. “We like to treat these last remaining games as playoffs. After last night’s loss, we moved to eighth, and after tonight’s win, we moved to sixth, so that’s a huge push going into the Mankato series next weekend.”
NMU, which stayed one point ahead of Minnesota State atop the league standings, fell to 18-11-3 overall and 16-6-2 in the WCHA.
The Chargers wanted to be faster after Saturday night’s 4-3 loss, and they were at the start.
Poulsen put UAH on the board first at the 2:05 mark, a snapper during a 2-on-1 break. Max McHugh got the assist.
“Getting the first goal is always an objective of our team,” Poulsen said. “I just put one off the glass, their D pinched and he bounced off the wall and it just came to me and we had a 2-on-1. He took the pass, and I took the shot, then it went in and the boys got hyped right away.”
Northern Michigan tied the game up with 6:43 remaining in the first. Philip Beaulieu fired from inside the blue line, just getting under the crossbar.
The Wildcats had several chances to take the lead in the second period with four power plays. Seven of NMU’s 15 shots in the period were with the man advantage.
Seven of those shots were also by NMU’s and the WCHA’s leading scorer, Troy Loggins, who was denied twice by Uhelski on breakaways.
“When someone gets a breakaway and you’re the goalie, you know that it’s a one-on-one,” Uhelski said. “It’s you versus him. Just with the support from the team that I get on a daily basis, I try to do a little extra and focus a little harder to make that save. If they score, that’s a difference maker. You make the save, that’s a difference maker.
“It’s just trying having your team’s back like they have had mine all year.”
The Chargers only got three shots on goal, but also had the only goal to retake the lead. On the power play, Kestner blasted a one-timer from the left circle for his 19th goal of the season at the 11:31 mark.
“It’s just my one-timer side,” the right-winger Kestner said. “Usually the left-handed guys are on the other side, too. I’ve a lot of good D partners that feed me a pass right in the slot, and I just let it go and hope it goes in.”
That D partner this time was Brandon Parker, who tallied his sixth assist of the year, and Poulsen got his team-leading 14th assist.
Poulsen got his second goal of the game and ninth of the season on a breakaway with 9:47 left in the 3rd, giving UAH a 3-1 lead.
“I saw the puck in the middle and the D was trying to beat me to it,” Poulsen said. “I just poke checked it past him and was off to the races after that. I ended up breaking free, making a good move, and he bit.”
NMU would not go quietly in the third period. Robbie Payne knocked in a rebound on the power play to cut UAH’s lead to 3-2 with 5:27 left.
The Wildcats pulled goaltender Atte Tolvanen (11 saves) late for an extra attacker, and UAH got a power play after a Denver Pierce boarding penalty with 41 seconds left.
From there, after a couple of close calls with NMU having the extra attacker, Kestner was able to get a breakaway and score on the empty net for his 20th goal of the season with 3.7 seconds left to seal the victory.
“Not even close,” Kestner responded when asked if he imagined getting 20 goals at this point of the season. “I go day to day, game to game.”
Kestner is the first Charger to get 20 goals since the 2004-05 season when Bruce Mulherin had 24, which is also UAH’s modern Division I record, and Jared Ross scored 22.
“It was a good game,” Corbett said. “We didn’t chase the scoreboard tonight. We were ahead of the scoreboard most of the time, and it was nice for us to be able to play that way.
“We executed better. Our boys play hard. When the puck’s moving and we’re more efficient, we’re playing faster. It’s moving the puck and getting the puck up the ice. We moved the puck a heck of a lot better and forced them to chase us a little bit.”
UAH hosts Minnesota State, which was ranked No. 7 in the country in last week’s poll and is fighting for the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular-season champion, next Friday and Saturday nights at Propst Arena. The Chargers will be looking to carry the result of this series as they fight to clinch a playoff spot for the first time in three years.
“This is a huge confidence booster,” Kestner said. “It’s one of those things where if we had gotten swept, we wouldn’t have been too motivated, too prepared for the upcoming weekend, but we’re ready to go. We don’t want to embarrass our fans on our home ice.”
“We’re looking forward to them coming in,” Uhelski said. “Although this was a great win, we’re not satisfied until we have an ‘x’ next to our name and we have a playoff spot.”
“We got to keep working on our fundamentals and keep everything simple,” Poulsen said. “The more we complicate things, the more we turn pucks over and get in trouble. They’re a good team coming in, so we’re looking to get one against them.”