Northern Michigan University Wildcats open WCHA playoffs at home vs. Huntsville this weekend

Northern Michigan University’s James Vermeulen chases after the puck in the NMU zone during a game against Alabama-Huntsville on Dec 2 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal file photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — For the first time in six years, the Northern Michigan University hockey team will host a playoff series.

The tough part is that they’re coming off a loss.

The No. 19 Wildcats (21-12-3, 19-7-2-2 WCHA) split a home-and-home series with Michigan Tech last weekend, including a 3-2 loss in the second game Saturday in Houghton.

But there are still positives heading looking forward to this weekend. NMU’s first-round opponent in the WCHA playoffs is seventh-seeded Alabama-Huntsville (11-21-2, 10-16-2-1), who it played just three weeks ago in Alabama.

The No. 2-seeded Wildcats split both regular-season series with the Chargers, winning the first game of both series and losing the second.

Even though the Wildcats fell to the Huskies on Saturday, NMU head coach Grant Potulny thinks it was a good thing for his team to play Tech right before the postseason.

“The guys are ready to go,” he said. “As you get wound down to the end of the year, I think it was fortunate that we get to play our rival the last game of the year for a couple of reasons.

“We were still playing for positioning, but for the most part, we knew that we would be at home for about two or three weeks now. So they’re excited to get to that. They haven’t had that yet, so they’ve been looking forward to that.

“Being able to play your rival right before — 1, it will get you battle-tested, but 2, it’ll keep your guys’ attention.

“It can be dangerous playing somebody when you’re trying to look past them. Our guys are excited and ready for the game on Friday night.”

The games against the Chargers played pivotal roles in NMU’s season.

The Northern loss in the second game of the home series back in December sparked a five-game points streak, including a road win over WCHA regular-season champion Minnesota State late that month.

The loss at Huntsville earlier this month ended a seven-game win streak for the Wildcats. The Chargers are one of only two teams that has defeated Northern at home this season — the Wildcats are 13-2 at the BEC — so Huntsville has given NMU as much trouble as just about any team in the WCHA.

Potulny says there are quite a few things that stand out about the Chargers, most obvious being their physicality — they’re fifth in the nation in penalty minutes.

“Their speed, their physicality and they’ve got a couple of high-end guys,” he said about UAH’s best attributes. “(Josh) Kestner and (Tyler) Poulsen can make you pay. Kestner is leading the league in goals (21) and he’s got nine on the power play. So we’ve got to make sure that we’re aware where he’s at.

“They’re just so physical. Their speed is great on the forecheck and when they get there, they arrive with a bad attitude. So we’ve got to make sure that we’re back to pucks quickly.

“The games we’ve had success, we broke the puck out well. We can’t allow them to get their forecheck going and that kind of leads them to have confidence as a team and gets their offense going.’

When asked what caused the Chargers to give NMU such fits this season, Potulny said goalie Jordan Uhelski played a role, as well as Huntsville’s power play, which normally has struggled.

“I think their goaltender played very well when we were down there last time,” he said. “The shots in both games were pretty much consistently the same. I think they were 35-15 (in favor of NMU) both nights or something like that, so he gives them a chance to win.

“They got a power play. In the games that they beat us, they scored two power-play goals each game. Our penalty kill has got to be spot on.

“I’m glad that this game is in our rink for a multitude of reasons. It’s a challenging place to play down there because the conditions of the ice aren’t always great and the physicality that they have can get you off your game a little bit. (That’s) because we want to have the puck the whole time and keep possession of it.”

Looking back at Saturday’s loss to Tech, both teams were effective on special teams as all five goals came on power plays, which Potulny said was unique.

“To be honest, I thought both power plays were very good,” he said. “If you look at the game, everybody’s scoring chances were the same, but the way that we had it, there was only 10 scoring chances 5-on-5 the entire game.”

Now though, the Wildcats need to focus on the Chargers for two and possibly three games. When asked if he was glad that NMU got Huntsville in the first round, Potulny said each team can be difficult to prepare for and it’s more important for NMU to focus on how it’s playing, not the opponent.

“You don’t know who you’re going to get because there’s four teams that we could’ve got,” he said. “To be honest, every team’s got their own challenges for different reasons.

“You’ve got to be careful what you wish for, too. At this point in the year, I don’t know that it matters as much who we are playing as much as how we are playing.

“I think going into this game, I know our guys have respect for Huntsville and they will have their attention all week for sure. I mentioned that to the team (on Monday). We’re .500 against them. The goals are even. The series (to) this point has been kind of even-Steven. Now whomever can win the series is going to advance.”

The Wildcats are looking for a White Out at each playoff game, with the first 1,000 entering for Friday and Saturday’s games getting an NMU white T-shirt.

“I’ve got to give my wife a little bit of credit on that one,” Potulny said. “She’s been around it because sometimes as a coach, you’re focused on your own. The game starts, you’re just worried about the team.

“There’s things that she picks up because she’s in the building and paying attention to everything else. It was her idea to have the white-out and some thundersticks. We’re doing a pizza party for any young person that comes to the game to save their ticket.

“The following Wednesday, we’re going to have a pizza party and give them a tour of the locker room because our great students are going to be on break. So we need to fill up that student section, and hopefully we can do it (with) some young people from the community.

“Hopefully, we can sell the Berry out. That’s the goal in the playoffs. It’s the most exciting time of the year and we’ve been very good at home.

The puck drops at 7 p.m. both Friday and Saturday, and if necessary, Sunday as well.

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