New era dawns: Grant Potulny, staff ready for first games as Northern Michigan University hockey coaches

Northern Michigan University’s Zach Diamantoni, left, brings the puck up ice and past Bemidji State’s Brendan Harms during the first period on Oct. 15 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — The anticipation for Northern Michigan University’s first hockey game this season has been building for quite awhile, but for new head coach Grant Potulny, it started the moment he took the job back in April.

The wait is finally over as the Wildcats take on Lake Superior State in a home-and-home nonconference series this weekend.

Potulny said Tuesday that he likes what he’s seen so far from his team and now that the Wildcats can have a full two hours on the ice for practices, it’s a huge benefit.

“From the beginning, I’ve really liked the energy and the effort from our team,” he said. “(Monday) was our first practice on game week and I thought they were outstanding.

“When you’re on a time crunch, you can’t coach as much as you’d like. Now we can stop and move guys around. We have the opportunity to have the Zamboni out there and clean the ice so we can play 45 (minutes) or an hour, clean the ice and then come back out for 45 or an hour. We can really get some work done and that’s the big thing.”

One of the big complaints about the Wildcats from fans the past couple of seasons was the lack of scoring and general lack of offensive opportunities. Potulny understands that and said that the Wildcats are adapting well to his faster-paced, improvisational style of play.

“I think you hear a lot about the lack of offense that we’ve generated in the past and I think they’ve done a really good job with the concepts that we’ve brought to them,” he said about his players. “They’ve bought into that and now it’s just building the rest of your game.

“Do we have some guys that can play fast? Yes, but you don’t have to be fast to play fast.”

NMU cocaptain Zach Diamantoni feels that even though it’s a new style, the team is embracing it and thinks fans will too.

“I think we’re going to be a bit more offensive,” he said. “Every coach has their different things, but guys are excited. We really enjoyed playing for Walt (Kyle), but we’re also excited to play for Grant. He’s brought some fresh ideas to the table, so I think fans are going to see a different style of hockey and maybe a little more exciting style.”

Even though the team seems to have adapted well to Potulny’s new ideas, now it must prepare for a real opponent. Last year, Lake State finished seventh in the WCHA (11-18-7 overall, 8-13-7 WCHA) and had an up-and-down season.

The Lakers opened their season on a five-game winning streak including a sweep of Michigan State, but the second half went terribly wrong. They closed out the year on a 10-game winless streak and were swept by Michigan Tech in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

Looking at this year’s roster, the Lakers offense looks to be stable as it returns four of its top five scorers.

Unlike the Wildcats, Lake State’s goaltender situation is up in the air. Star goalie Gordon Defiel is now with the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies, so the Lakers will have a four-person battle for the starting job.

“I think in watching their (exhibition) game that they do a good job of breaking out and supporting the puck on their side of the rink,” Potulny said. “If you aren’t mindful of your responsibilities, you can get caught on their odd-man rushes and they had a couple of those last weekend.”

Diamantoni has played the Lakers several times over his career and said the thing that sticks out for him is LSSU’s improvement.

“They’re a team that’s improved every year that we’ve played them,” he said. “Every weekend is a battle with them and obviously with the Cappo Cup, it’s a big deal for guys like Denver (Pierce) who lives in the Soo. It’s a big deal for us, too.”

As he said in the Journal’s season preview, Potulny isn’t sure just how good his team can be yet, but he hopes that the Wildcats reach their full potential by the end of the season.

Last year the team finished just 13-22-4 overall, but hope was rekindled in the second half with a league-best 8-4-2 record from January on.

“I don’t know what our ceiling is,” the new coach said. “When you have coached a team before and you have a lot of returners, you know what you have.

“As a coach, you hope your guys can have some success early on because they have worked hard and put a lot of time in over the summer. You just want your team to get better and you want to reach whatever that ceiling is at the end of the year because that’s where it counts the most.”

Friday’s game is at 7:07 p.m. in Sault Ste. Marie with Saturday’s at 7 p.m. in Marquette.

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