Trying to stay on top

NMU icers look to extend WCHA lead in series with Alaska-Fairbanks

NMU’s Zach Diamantoni and LSSU’s Collin Saccoman race after the puck Saturday evening January 20, 2018 at Berry Events Center. (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University hockey team checked off another one of its preseason goals last weekend. Now the Wildcats have a chance to solidify itself again this weekend.

Last Saturday’s win over Alabama-Huntsville gave the No. 20 Wildcats (18-11-3, 16-6-2 WCHA) home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, something they’ve failed to attain since they returned to the conference five years ago.

After splitting with the Chargers last week, the first-place Wildcats (52 points) now face Alaska-Fairbanks at home with a good chance to increase a slim one-point advantage over second-place Minnesota State.

Wildcats head coach Grant Potulny said that it was crucial for his team to get home ice in the competitive WCHA, especially with Northern’s success at the Berry Events Center.

“Home ice is very important,” he said. “Our record at home is 10-2 and we’ve played very well here. I think the rink is a competitive advantage for us with (the) ice sheet.

“We have to try to stay here as long as we can. Having home ice is a good start, but you want to try to be here hopefully through the end, and if not, for sure through the first two rounds.”

Fairbanks (11-15-2, 9-12-1) has an opportunity of its own this weekend. The Nanooks are seventh in the league as they try to lock up a playoff spot. Fairbanks is up by one point on Ferris State, who it swept last weekend, and one behind Huntsville.

The Nanooks are similar to Northern in many ways and are almost even with the Wildcats in team offense and defense.

Two Nanooks also picked up WCHA weekly awards this week as Fairbanks points leader Zach Frye was named Defensive Player of the Week and Anton Martinsson got Goaltender of the Week.

However, Fairbanks struggles on special teams, especially on the power play (56th out of 60 in the nation). With Northern leading the country in shorthanded goals with seven, this is a great opportunity for the Wildcats to add to that statistic.

“The first game we played (at Fairbanks in mid-November), our power play was great,” Potulny said. “We jumped out early and were kind of opportunistic on Friday night. To that point in the year, they had kind of been in a tough spot. That was the kind of the moment on Saturday where they stood up and tried to plant their flag. They played a very physical game.

“They played well Saturday and they are coming off a sweep. They do some things and stretch some guys. They do play on an Olympic sheet, so that won’t be a difference for them.

“They’re just like us. We’re in a dogfight to finish near the top of the league and they’re in a dogfight to make sure they’re in the playoffs. So both teams should be equally as hungry.”

When asked to analyze the series in Alabama, Potulny wasn’t thrilled with how the Wildcats played. NMU got a nice victory in the opener, but were forced to play catch-up on Sunday before ultimately falling short.

The loss cost the Wildcats in the important Pairwise rankings. On Saturday, they moved into the top 15 as the best 16 teams make the NCAA Tournament. Then on Sunday, they slid back to No. 20.

“To be honest, the last four games I thought we just played OK,” he said. “I thought we probably played our best game out of that whole sequence on Saturday, and out of that game we probably played our best third period in a long time.

“It’s hard to evaluate sometimes when you’re on the road and you’re playing against opponents that you might not have to have your best.

“That is what’s scary. Are you playing well enough to win or are you playing well? I think maybe for a couple of those games, we were playing just well enough to win.

“There were signs on Saturday night that we weren’t emotionally invested in the game. In the third period, I thought we played well. But we’ve got to go back to work and start playing our brand of hockey and playing to our standard.”

With just four games to go in the regular season, Potulny said in order to win the MacNaughton Cup, his team has to obviously keep winning, but not become solely focused on winning the conference.

“We just have to win the games in front of us,” he said. “When you go through the course of the year and you’re chasing a championship, you’ve got to make sure you don’t expend too much energy chasing that championship. All of a sudden, that’s over and then the real season starts. We have to just take it game by game.”

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