Seeking consistency: Northern Michigan University hockey team returns to Bemidji State looking to move over .500

Northern Michigan University’s Ryan Black, right, chases the puck pursued by Alabama-Huntsville’s Brennan Saulnier on Saturday night at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

“We’re going to have to play well 5 on 5, which for us has been a little bit of a hit-and-miss lately.” — Grant Potulny, head coach, NMU hockey


MARQUETTE — Inconsistency has been a problem for the Northern Michigan University hockey team as it has struggled to put together two good nights in the same weekend since a mid-October sweep at Ferris State.

It was the same story for the Wildcats last weekend as they split at home against Alabama-Huntsville, looking strong Friday night but struggling badly in a loss Saturday to even their overall record at 8-8 and move their WCHA mark to 6-4.

Now NMU has to head out on the road again, this time to defending WCHA regular season champion Bemidji State, which outlasted the Wildcats last season in the first round of the league playoffs.

Northern head coach Grant Potulny is familiar with the Beavers with his time as an assistant at the University of Minnesota.

“I’ve seen them a lot and I know them,” he said. “They work hard and they’re very well coached. They pressure pucks and they back pressure. If you want to play east and west against them, it’s going to be a long, long night, but if you want to get the puck going up the rink, you can have a few chances to do some things.”

The Beavers (5-6-3, 2-4-2 WCHA) are having a similar season to the Wildcats. Bemidji won the MacNaughton Cup last year on the strength of its defense and Michael Bitzer’s goaltending. However, Bitzer is off to a slow start this season and Bemidji sits in the middle of the pack in the national defensive rankings, so goals might come a little easier for NMU.

If goals are going to happen for either team, they’re going to come 5 on 5 as both teams are strong on the penalty kill. Bemidji is No. 1 in the country in that statistic while Northern sits in a respectable 15th-place tie.

“I think their special teams are really good,” Potulny said. “Their 5-on-5 play, they’ve been a minus team to this point. So we’re going to have to play well 5 on 5, which for us has been a little bit of a hit-and-miss lately. We scored three goals on Friday but they were all on special teams. We scored one goal out of the weekend 5 on 5.

“So we’ve got to start generating more offense and we’ve got to start bringing pucks to the interior. We play on the perimeter too much. Even though you talk about how you’ve got to win the turf war and you’ve got to get the run game going and all that stuff, that’s all great. But you have to play on the inside, too.

“When we play the game the right way and we play to our ability, we’ve had success. When we haven’t, it’s been a roll of the dice.

“That’s the biggest thing. Hopefully, we can play to our ability this weekend and if Bemidji beats us and we play to our ability, we’ll just tip our cap and we’ll feel good about where our performance is at.”

The Wildcats have an interesting goaltending situation. Mathias Israelsson has played the last four games while Atte Tolvanen tries to get healthy. Potulny said that Tolvanen is “recovering,” but he’s not sure if he’ll play this week. He did praise Israelsson for stepping into the starting role, though.

“It’s a maturation process for that position,” Potulny said. “He hasn’t been asked to do this in three years of hockey. I think the first two games he played in Omaha, the first time he actually knew he was going to play that weekend, I don’t think he liked either of his games. (Last) weekend, I think he liked one of his games. So hopefully he can like both of them (this) weekend. That makes a huge difference for any team.”

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