A single game away: Northern Michigan University hockey team on cusp of NCAA tournament bid

Michigan Tech's Seamus Donohue, center, and Alex Gillies, left, attempt to knock the puck past Northern Michigan University goalie Atte Tolvanen, lower right, during their WCHA game played Nov. 11 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Bryce Derouin)

“Goals are going to be tough to come by and it’s going to be an in-your-face type of game because that’s the way they play.” — Grant Potulny, NMU head coach, on the kind of game he expects Saturday night from Michigan Tech

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MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University hockey team is on the verge of accomplishing something few fans could have dared dream about before this season began.

On Saturday night, the Wildcats host Upper Peninsula rival Michigan Tech in the final game of their league playoffs, the WCHA Championship game, and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament the goes with it.

If Northern tops the Huskies, it would be NMU’s first trip to the national tourney since 2010 and a huge accomplishment for a team that was picked to finish seventh in the preseason WCHA coaches and media polls.

Tech has made the NCAA tourney twice in the last three years, falling in the first round each time.

Both teams earned their spot in the finals after outlasting their semifinal opponent in overtime of the third and deciding game, NMU over visiting Bowling Green State at the Berry Events Center, and Tech at regular-season champion Minnesota State-Mankato.

The Wildcats finished their series nearly 16 minutes into the extra period Sunday with forward Troy Loggins’ rocket shot from the blue line. The goal sent Northern fans into pandemonium and made tickets to the game against Tech a hot commodity. The game quickly sold out.

NMU head coach Grant Potulny enjoys the fact that the game will be at the BEC, but not surprisingly, is focused entirely on the game, not on the hoopla surrounding it.

“It’s exciting we’re at home and I’m excited we’re at home,” he said. “It’s a championship game and I’m sure the communities are both very excited. I know the players are very excited.

“At the end of the day, it’s a championship game and they happen to be our opponent. We’re going to prepare for that game, whether we were playing (Minnesota State) Mankato or Tech or whoever.

“When the puck drops, it’s all about who can make a play, and on who gets to their game and who plays well. Somebody’s got to go home. So it’s just another elimination game for us.”

When asked if he liked the fact that it’s just a one-game round or if he would prefer another three-game series, Potulny said he preferred the single game because of the potential exhaustion three more games would cause for the winner once it reaches the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s hard, especially for us because we played three the first weekend and then played three (one more time),” he said. “If we had to play three again, the team that would advance I think it’s taken a toll on your body.

“So I think it has to be a one-game shot because of the way our league is set up. You could go three and three like we have. If you went three again, I don’t know what you’d have in the tank to move forward.

“It’s not much different for them (the Huskies) because they had to travel to Bemidji (State) and travel to Mankato, where they played three.

“So if they had to play three again with us, should they advance, they probably wouldn’t have much left in the tank either. I think it just kind of has to be a one-game shot.”

It’s not going to be an easy game either, as Tech and NMU both know each other quite well after splitting four games this season. The Wildcats lead the Huskies in the four major team statistical categories, but three of them are fairly close.

The only real disparity is on the penalty kill, where NMU is at the middle of the pack nationally at No. 30 and Tech is near the bottom at No. 55 (of 60 NCAA Division I schools).

However, the Huskies’ penalty killers did fairly well against high-powered Minnesota State, killing off seven of 10 penalties. Tech also has two of its best players (Jake Jackson and Mitch Reinke) back in the lineup, so it will be in better shape to face the Wildcats this time around.

“They’re better,” Potulny said. “Jackson is back, Reinke is back. Those guys make a big difference. They started the year winning at the Icebreaker Tournament. Then they go to Las Vegas and they dismantle Boston College, a very good team.

“We’ve seen them four times and probably the first weekend of the year, we were noncompetitive there and they were probably a little noncompetitive here.

“I thought the last time we played them, even though we won on Friday and they won on Saturday, they might have outplayed us Friday and we might’ve outplayed them Saturday. So it’s been a very even series.

“They’re back with a goaltender (Patrick Munson) that in their eyes, they thought would be the starter based on him playing at the beginning of the year. He’s found his game and he’s been outstanding.

“Goals are going to be tough to come by and it’s going to be an in-your-face type of game because that’s the way they play.

“They’re very similar to us. They want to make plays and they want to get up the rink. They’ve got good depth. We’re going to have to play very well.”

Looking back on last weekend’s exciting series with the Falcons, Potulny thought that after Friday’s six-goal offensive explosion, his team didn’t do what he was hoping to do Saturday — get to its style of game quickly.

However, he thought Sunday was a great outing for the Wildcats.

“Obviously, Friday was great,” he said. “Saturday, for us as a team, when we skate, we play well. When we skate, we get scoring chances and when we skate, we play. We defended on Saturday and they didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities. But we didn’t skate. We didn’t get to our game.

“Then on Sunday, I thought it was a great game. It was two teams that played outstanding and I thought we really played well. There was a ton of scoring chances and we didn’t give up a five-on-five goal all weekend. So we did a nice job on that side of it.

“Then big-time players have to step up in big-time games and obviously, Troy made a play at the end and we advanced.

“That’s the way it’s going to be from here on out. You’re not going to see a lot of crooked numbers. I think it’s going to be 3-2 and 2-1 games. At the end of the day, we’ve always talked about how the number (of goals given up) for us is two and to keep it at two or less. If we do that, we have success. It only happened one time this year (when the Wildcats gave up two goals or less and lost), which was Saturday, and I didn’t think we skated.

“They (the Falcons) are a good team. They finished one game behind us for a reason and a lot of those kids on that team played in the championship game last year. They’ve been a top-three or -four team in the league the last couple of years, so they have a very good coaching staff and very good players. So it was a very good game on Sunday.”

Saturday’s game at the BEC has the potential to be a good one as well and the puck drops at 7 p.m. For those who don’t have tickets, the game will be televised on Fox-U.P. (Channel 11 on Charter Communications systems), with a pregame show at 6 p.m.

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