Northern Michigan University hockey faces tough WCHA playoff semifinals test in hard-hitting Bowling Green State Falcons

Northern Michigan  University’s Denver Pierce, left, and Alabama-Huntsville’s Richard Buri go for the puck Friday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — The last time the Northern Michigan University hockey team faced off against Bowling Green State it started a memorable string of games in January.

The Wildcats swept the Falcons at home to begin a long winning streak that lasted into early February and helped propel the Wildcats to the top of the WCHA.

However, to earn those two wins over BGSU, NMU (23-13-3, 19-7-2 WCHA) needed to play at its highest level and it’ll need to again this weekend if it wants to extend its postseason run past the league playoff semifinals.

After needing all three games to outlast Alabama-Huntsville in a series last weekend in the WCHA Tournament, the No. 19 Wildcats will host the No. 17 Falcons, who just swept Ferris State.

NMU hasn’t had much luck recently in the postseason with BGSU, losing in the first round to the Falcons in 2011, 2012 and in 2015.

Northern head coach Grant Potulny reiterated at Tuesday’s press conference how difficult it can be to end someone’s season and as hard as it was to get by the Chargers, it could be even harder to get past the Falcons, who last season were one game away from making the NCAA Tournament.

“As you go and as you advance, somebody is going home and it’ll be just as challenging this weekend. As you continue to move on, you get into those situations where whoever you’re playing at this point is having a very good year.

“BG is a very good hockey team and they’ve had a very good season. They don’t want it to end. In their minds, they have thoughts of continuing on into the NCAA Tournament and then seeing what happens.

“They’re coming up here with the expectation to win, just like we would be if we were going down there. It gets way harder this weekend than even last weekend.

“I do think when you play teams at the top, their mindset is a little different than maybe teams that haven’t had as much success.”

Statistical comparisons come up almost identical when comparing the Wildcats and Falcons.

BGSU leads NMU in both team offense and defense, but only by a slim margin. Power play success is just about even — the Falcons are 20th nationally while Northern is 21st.

What does differentiate the squads is their style of play. Bowling Green is much like Huntsville, but even stronger. The Falcons love to hit and hit hard as they are fifth in the country in penalty minutes, one spot below the Chargers. Their style is in direct contrast with NMU’s fast-paced, fluid offense.

“Bowling Green is going to try to wear you out physically,” Potulny said. “They’re going to try to win the turf war with you. They have big, strong guys.

“I think in this series, home ice is probably bigger than for any other team we could play. In their rink, they play with a little tighter corners. They try to run you out of real estate. Where in our rink, we can move and we can skate and make some plays.

“So I think the home-ice advantage is big and it might’ve made the difference with who finished above who. It was a one-game difference (in the standings). We had them here and we didn’t have to go there, and we swept them. I think home ice is going to be very critical this series.”

A difference between BGSU and Huntsville is the amount of shots taken. The Chargers didn’t have more than 20 shots in any game last weekend, whereas the Falcons will probably send a lot more at NMU goalie Atte Tolvanen. For example, BGSU got off 64 shots Friday against Ferris.

That’s probably a good thing as goalies tend to like to keep their mind sharp instead of letting it wander with fewer shots.

“I think he (Tolvanen) is very happy that they are done for the year,” Potulny said with a chuckle about Huntsville. “He played great against Bowling Green. They shoot a lot more pucks. They are a more volume-shooting team than Huntsville is.

“Not that Huntsville won’t score. The scoring chances might be the same, but he’s going to feel a lot more pucks this weekend. They’ll shoot from every angle.

“(BG’s Mitch) McLain had 21 shots last weekend. That’s incredible. He’s obviously an elite player, but that’s the mindset of their team. They want to pump pucks on you, they want to try to get people to the net and try to find a rebound or get a bounce.

“In those types of settings, history has said that he’s (Tolvanen) played his best hockey against teams that get a lot of shots.”

Looking back at the Huntsville series, Potulny said that Northern basically had its best and worst games of the year all in one weekend.

On Friday, the Wildcats pumped seven goals into the net, whereas Saturday, they looked sluggish and tentative before giving up a goal in the final minute that extended the series to a third game.

“It was three completely different games,” Potulny said. “(That was) probably the best game we’ve played all year on Friday and probably the poorest game we’ve played all year on Saturday. On Sunday, (that) was probably the most mature game that we’ve played all year.

“The first two, it’s easy to understand why. Energy, puck management, physicality, execution and all those things. On Sunday, there was a little nervousness to our team and we had to get through their push and get through them getting a lead. We just had to kind of stay with the game plan.

“We chart turnovers and we had the highest numbers on Saturday that we’ve had all year. On Sunday, we had the lowest number we’ve had all year. You can’t beat yourself in the playoffs.

“We just locked it down and toward the end of the game, when it was going into the third period, we were expecting a push from them and shots were 13 to 2. So kind of three different games.”

Potulny also said that his team was excited to keep playing and after getting past Huntsville, he thinks they finally feel like they’re in the playoffs.

“As an athlete, you know you’re in the playoffs because everyone tells you you’re in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s on the ticket stub, and people around town are talking about it. ‘Playoffs are here. Playoffs are here.’

“They are, but until you get by that first round, you don’t feel it. I think now that we’re by that first round, guys can take a breath a little bit. I think we were a little uptight the second two nights. I think we were zoned in the first night and I think we were a little uptight the next two.

“I think we’re relaxed and I think we’ll play. I think we’ll play free and when we do that, we play our best.”

Friday’s, Saturday’s, and if necessary, Sunday’s games all begin at 7 p.m. at the Berry Events Center.

If NMU gets past the Falcons, it will play the winner of the other semifinal between Minnesota State and Michigan Tech. If the Mavericks win, the Wildcats would travel to Mankato for the WCHA title game, but if the Huskies win, MTU would come to Marquette and play at the BEC.

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