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Take Five With NMU Beat Writer Matt Wellens

In what we hope to be a weekly feature here at Bucky's 5th Quarter, we've set up a brief interview with Northern Michigan hockey beat writer Matt Wellens. In addition to his duties covering the hockey team, Matt is also the Mining Journal sports editor in Marquette, Michigan.  He's not all bad though, he is a Packer fan.

This weekend is big because it's opening weekend but as Badger fans know, non conference games are huge when calculating the pairwise at the end of the season. This is a really nice opportunity for Wisconsin and their young players because they aren't being thrown into the fire against a top five team in the country, but they aren't playing a pushover either.

Northern Michigan has some very nice weapons up front, and two really strong net-minders that should give the Badgers a challenge on opening weekend. Let's see what Matt has to say about what the Wildcats are going to bring to the table this weekend.

B5Q: One of the biggest story lines for the week is going to be the return of Matt Thurber to Madison. For those not familiar, Thurber is a Wisconsin kid who played his freshman and sophomore seasons for the Badgers. Mike Eaves released him from his scholarship in February of his sophomore season after he was charged with misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct after an alleged domestic dispute.

Thurber landed at Northern Michigan and after sitting out a transfer year, and will be making his return to NCAA hockey with the Wildcats against his former club at the Kohl Center. What kind of role is Thurber expected to play for Northern this season and has he had any comments about returning to Madison?

Wellens: Thurber is expected to jump into the lineup right away and along with sophomore Reed Seckel, really be an impact player for NMU. Both guys were with the team all of last season — Thurber sitting out as a transfer and Seckel injured — so NMU head coach Walt Kyle is looking at them as veterans, not as newcomers. Having sat out a year, I think Kyle is expecting huge growth out of Thurber specifically.

Kyle compared Thurber to NMU senior Andrew Cherniwchan, a solid two-way player for the Wildcats. Where NMU really hopes Thurber can contribute is on the penalty kill. The Wildcats were horrendous in that category last year in large part because of how many penalty minutes they racked up.

As far as Thurber's return to Madison, it's probably a much bigger story in Madison than it is in Marquette. I think everyone is aware of his history with Wisconsin, but in talking to people in the community and at NMU, he's been nothing but a model citizen thus far. I haven't spoken to him yet about returning to his home state and former team, but I plan to either this week or while we're in Madison.

Thurber is actually the second Wildcat in the last decade to come out of Beaver Dam High School. Nick Sirota played for NMU from 2005-2009 and was one of the team's leading scorers over his last three seasons (45 goals, 45 assists). He played with quite a chip on his shoulder against the Badgers after no being recruited by them growing up. I'm curious to see how Thurber plays against Bucky after being dumped by the team.
B5Q: Northern Michigan was predicted to finish 6th and 7th in the coaches and media preseason polls respectively out of 11 teams. That's right around middle of the pack in the CCHA. Is that accurate, or do you think they might be a little under or over rated heading into the season?

Wellens: I think they are being slightly underrated as I see NMU falling somewhere between 4th and 6th. I picked NMU to finish fifth behind Western Michigan, however, after hearing new Broncos head coach Andy Murray talk about the challenges he's facing transitioning from the NHL to college game, I think Western may slip this year as Murray adjusts and NMU may be able to jump them. Minus two seasons in which NMU was in a total rebuilding mode, Walt Kyle has always gotten his team to the CCHA championships in Detroit.

NMU will struggle early with series against Michigan, Notre Dame and Miami, though all three are coming to Marquette so a win or two isn't out of the question.

I don't think we'll really know how good of a team NMU is until the second half of the season when trips to Miami and Michigan appear on the schedule.

B5Q: The Wildcats return their top 3 leading scorers from last season in Gron, Florek, and Cherniwchan. They obviously steer the ship offensively but who are some other players up front to keep an eye on this weekend?

Wellens: Walt Kyle has said there is no Mark Olver (Colorado Avalanche) or Mike Santorelli (Florida Panthers) on the roster this year so it will be a scoring by committee type team. If neither Florek, Cherniwchan or Gron lead the team in scoring, I wouldn't be surprised since neither is an elite goal scorer.

Sophomores Stephan Vigier and Erik Higby are two players I'd like to see step up and light the lamp. The freshman most likely to have a lot off succes scoring goals is Dylan Walchuk out of McBride, B.C. and expect the NMU defense to do something it hasn't done since the days of Nathan Oystrick and Jamie Milam — score goals from the blue line. Wade Epp has a cannon that needs to get more accurate. Freshmen Mitch Jones has really moved the puck well in practice and Jake Baker is expected to boost the offese as well.

B5Q: Reid Ellingson was really good between the pipes for Northern last season. Given that non conference games against schools like Wisconsin could be crucial for the Wildcats when calculating their PWR come NCAA playoff time, do you expect that we'll see him both nights this weekend?

Wellens: Unless there is an injury or someone is in a complete rut, I think it will be rare to see either Ellingson or freshman Jared Coreau play more than two nights in a row this year. This weekend for sure we will see Ellingson one night at the Kohl Center and Coreau the other. If I was a betting man, Ellingson gets the start Friday and Coreau on Saturday.

Kyle will be splitting time between the two to start the season. Last year, Ellingson was the more consistent of the two and you expect a junior to be more consistent than a freshman. Coreau at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, has the ability to steal games, however, especially in big-time barns. He stood on his head at Denver, Miami, Notre Dame and Michigan State last year to give NMU either a tie or win. The problem was he'd follow a big game with a dud.

Ellingson will probably hold a slight edge this season due to his intelligence and experience, but I expect Coreau, who went to NHL camps in San Jose and New York this summer, to be an elite goaltender as a junior and senior at NMU. Kyle isn't going to let his future goalie sit on the bench all year.

B5Q: This has been a tough series for me to predict. I think Wisconsin has a little more talent and has home ice but will be relying on a lot of young players. How do you see this series shaking out when it's all said and done?

Wellens: This is a terribly tough series to predict because both teams have a ton of youth and neither team has taken the ice yet this season, even for an exhibition. I'm expecting this to be a bit of a sloppy series on both sides with young players showing us glimpses of greatness while other times leaving us shaking our heads. Get ready for lots of penalties and no flow as young players get their first dose of collegiate officiating.

I'm calling a split with Wisconsin winning a low-scoring game on Friday and Coreau stealing a win in net for NMU on Saturday. Yes there are NCAA tournament implications but I'm not sure either Mike Eaves or Walt Kyle is thinking about that this weekend. They are looking for young players to grow and mature before conference play begins.

My advice to the fans, think of this as an exhibition weekend for both teams and save any doom and gloom for conference play.

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