On the doorstep: Northern Michigan University’s Atte Tolvanen ready to set 2 national records for goaltenders

Northern Michigan University sophomore goaltender Atte Tolvanen stares down an approaching Alaska-Fairbanks skater on Saturday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. On this night, the Finland native tied the all-time NCAA record with five consecutive shutouts and is less than two full periods shy of the all-time consecutive scoreless minutes mark. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — Northern Michigan University goaltender Atte Tolvanen completed one huge feat last weekend and now he has a chance to go another step further.

On Saturday, Tolvanen tied the NCAA men’s hockey consecutive shutout record with his fifth in a row.

He can also set the record for consecutive minutes without allowing a goal if he makes it through the first two periods unscathed against Minnesota State (16-10-4, 12-8-4 WCHA). The current record is 375 minutes, 1 second, set by Lake Superior State’s Blaine Lacher in 1994 during his five-shutout streak. Tolvanen is at 335:39, meaning the record would be his with 37 seconds remaining in the second period if no goal has been scored.

Even though the college hockey world will be focused on him, Tolvanen said he’s barely thought about it and is only thinking about helping the Wildcats (11-17-4, 9-12-3) keep their winning streak going.

Northern has won six in a row and as a result, moved from dead last in the WCHA standings to a tie for sixth place with the Lakers with four games left in the regular season.

Their position is tenuous, though. They’re in the middle of a logjam of five teams that are separated by two points, with one of those teams going to be left behind in the WCHA playoffs in ninth place.

“It’s there, but it’s something I’m trying not to focus on,” he said. “I’m just trying to stay focused on the puck and the next one that’s coming. I can’t let it affect me at all. It’s a new day on Friday and we have to show up at our best.”

NMU head coach Walt Kyle praised his goalie for how he’s handled all the hype.

“I didn’t think the first part of the year that he looked like himself,” Kyle said. “After Christmas, he’s looked exactly how he looked a year ago. He’s played very well and for the most part, I think the guys in front of him have done a good job.

“I told the guys yesterday that you have to watch what’s going on because this is never going to happen again. This is an incredible run that he’s had.

“He’s playing with confidence and he was playing well long before this streak started. When we played Lake Superior, we only gave up a couple of goals in that series.

“He’s been on top of his game and he’s been a real student of his game. He works at his craft and all the guys have a lot of respect for him. What he’s doing is just a by-product of what he puts in.”

The Wildcats shut down Alaska-Fairbanks last weekend, but it wasn’t easy. Tolvanen had to make 39 saves Friday and a career-high 48 Saturday as Northern struggled to stay out of the penalty box. However, four goals by WCHA Offensive Player of the Week Robbie Payne helped push NMU over the top.

Kyle said that things need to improve greatly if Tolvanen is to set the record and the Wildcats clinch a playoff spot.

“Penalties were an issue for us early in the year and they were an issue again Saturday,” the coach said. “We had done a pretty good job prior to that.

“There are times where you need to take penalties, but you certainly don’t need to take them in the offensive zone a hundred feet away from your net. You don’t need to take retaliation penalties and we need to be diligent of all of this because it is a factor.”

To keep winning, NMU will have to both withstand and keep up with a high-powered Minnesota State offense. The Minnesota version of MSU leads the WCHA in total offense and has five scorers with more than 20 points, including 33-point man Marc Michaelis.

And the Mavericks aren’t just talented offensively; they’re also 16th nationally in total defense. The Mavs’ goaltending threesome of Cole Huggins, Jason Pawloski and Aaron Nelson are also difficult to deal with as each has a goals against average below 2.50.

“(MSU head coach) Mike (Hastings) has done a really good job down there the last couple of years and they’re always solid,” Kyle said. “They’ve gotten solid recruits and they’re always hard to play against.

“He’s got that one big line with Michaelis on it and their corps of defensemen has 17 goals. They’re very good and they’re where they are for a reason. We’re going to have a big test down there and we always do.”

It could be a difficult weekend for both Tolvanen and the Wildcats. However, Northern is playing its best hockey of the season at the right time, so there’s a chance the Wildcats can take care of business in Minnesota.

“I’m feeling better, but as a coach, you’re always looking at where we are and where we need to be,” Kyle said. “We have four games left and we haven’t sowed up anything yet.

“I’ve liked the way that we’ve played, but I didn’t like how we played Saturday. We left Atte out to dry and he did a remarkable job. To have Atte doing the things that he’s doing now and with the team having some success, there’s a much better mood in the locker room and that’s a real positive.

“We’re happy with the moves we’ve made, but we understand that we’re not where we want to be at.”

As far as Tolvanen’s chances of setting the record Friday go, Kyle was blunt in his response.

“I’m not going there and I’m not saying a word,” he said with a smile. “I don’t know what you guys are talking about.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.