Big series in Big Rapids: After first win, Northern Michigan University hockey team looks for WCHA sweep vs. Ferris State

Northern Michigan University’s Jordan Klimek, right, passes to a teammate as Lake Superior State’s Diego Cuglietta defends on Saturday night at the Berry Events Center. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

“We have to be prepared to go into a rink … that will be a hostile environment and it’s going to be played right in front of their noses.” — Grant Potulny, NMU head coach, on Ferris State

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MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University hockey team and new head coach Grant Potulny accomplished something Saturday night that it took three months to do last year.

They won a home game at the Berry Events Center, 4-1 over Lake Superior State.

Now that they have gotten that first victory out of the way, the Wildcats will try to earn their first series sweep when they head to Ferris State this weekend. NMU picked up a win and a tie last year in Big Rapids.

The Bulldogs (1-1) are coming off a nonconference split with Western Michigan when they bounced back to get a win Saturday after getting trounced Friday. Potulny said both Ferris and the Wildcats had similar results over the weekend and it’ll be a tough battle.

“They’re a different team in their own rink,” he said on Tuesday. “They’re really good in the breakout and they’re really good in the neutral zone where they can stretch some guys and try to put you in tough situations where they can ‘2-on-1’ you.

“They’re good on the penalty kill, too, so there are some areas that we’re going to have to prepare our guys for. Maybe last year was an aberration because they didn’t get the goaltending they were hoping for. So it’s going to be a dogfight. They’re a good hockey team and they’re very well coached.

“We have to be prepared to go into a rink, for our younger guys, that will be a hostile environment and it’s going to be played right in front of their noses. They’re not used to that, so we’ve got to prepare for that over the course of this week.”

Looking back on the Wildcats last weekend, to say that it was eventful might be an understatement. NMU was facing a conference rival in a nonconference series after struggling badly in Marquette last year, they were introducing their new fast style of play to their fans, and on Saturday, they were dedicating their rink to legendary former head coach Rick Comley, which now bears his name permanently.

Even though Northern lost to the Lakers In Sault Ste. Marie on Friday night, Potulny thought his team played a better game than on Saturday. However, he did say the penalty kill was vastly improved the second night after giving up four power-play goals the game before.

“I thought we were a much better team Friday than we were on Saturday,” he said. “I don’t think we managed the puck even though we only gave up 21 shots. I think they missed the net a lot and some of the ones that we did give up were Grade A scoring chances. I thought we deserved better on Friday and that was because of the penalty kill. We’ve got to get that fixed, but as a staff, I think we’re pleased.”

Potulny did say he also wants the power play to improve as it looked inconsistent against Lake State. The Wildcats scored two goals with the man advantage Friday, but struggled to get shots on net the following night.

“Going into that first game, you don’t have a lot of video on what they’re doing,” he said. “They had none on us. Until you get in, you’re not sure what to prepare your guys for, what sets they’re going to have. I think both coaches went back to look at the video and adjusted a couple of things.

“We didn’t shoot the puck enough Saturday on the power play. As pleased as I was with our kill, I thought our power play struggled. You want to win the special teams battle every night and you definitely don’t want to lose it.

“That cost us the game Friday, and Saturday was a 5-on-5 game and we made one or two plays more than they did.”

While the power play as a whole may have struggled, senior forward Robbie Payne sure didn’t. He racked up two power-play goals on Friday and two more even-strength goals Saturday. As a result, he was named WCHA Offensive Player of the Week.

Potulny praised his sharpshooting skater.

“I think it’s fantastic one of your guys gets recognized because you can have a great weekend and for some reason somebody else gets the award,” he said. “With Robbie, we just have to keep him moving his feet.

“That’s the big thing for him. He’s got a great brain and a great offensive stick. We’ve just got to get him to be in situations where he can use those gifts as he did this weekend. I know he’s looking forward to having a big senior year and we want to make sure that we coach him up in practice, but then putting him in situations where he can use the gifts that he has to be successful.”

NMU will try to continue to figure it out downstate this weekend with Friday’s and Saturday’s games scheduled for 7:07 p.m. at Ewigleben Ice Arena.

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