Powerful power play: Northern Michigan University Wildcats score twice on 5-minute man-advantage to eliminate Huntsville, 5-2
“I thought we did a good job getting better as the game went (on).” — Grant Potulny, head coach, NMU hockey
MARQUETTE — The last two times that the Northern Michigan University hockey team hosted a deciding third game in a WCHA playoff series, it ended in disappointing fashion for the Wildcats.
On Sunday night, NMU shook off those failures and came out on top this time around as it eliminated Alabama-Huntsville with a 5-2 victory.
The Wildcats collected two goals on a key five-minute power play in the second period and got an empty-netter to close out the win.
Denver Pierce and Troy Loggins each scored twice for Northern, while goalie Atte Tolvanen finished with 16 saves. With the victory, the Wildcats host Bowling Green State this weekend in the WCHA playoff semifinals, another best-of-three series.
“That’s a tough opponent (Huntsville) for us,” NMU head coach Grant Potulny said. “When you look at the history of the season series, the shots were similar to what they were tonight for the entire series. They are such a good rush offense team that they can quick-strike you and they got some high-end guys that you’ve got to be aware of.
“I thought we did a good job getting better as the game went. I think we were a little nervous to start the game and I thought our third period was our best one to date. We made a few adjustments during the game that I felt made a difference for us to help slow down their offense, but it was a complete effort. Four lines played 60 (minutes) and Atte was great.”
After Tolvanen was tested at the game’s outset by both Madison Dunn and Josh Kestner, Pierce gave his goalie some support on the scoreboard. Pierce got a pass from Loggins at the Huntsville blue line, skated to the slot and beat Chargers goalie Jordan Uhelski high-glove to put Northern up 1-0 less than three minutes in. Pierce also had a good chance to get his second goal with 13:52 left in the opening period, but Uhelski cut down the angle and stopped him at the near post.
Before that, though, some careless defense burned the Wildcats. A turnover let Chargers forward Tyler Poulsen weave his way to the net where he quickly passed it to Josh Kestner, who tapped it past Tolvanen with just over nine minutes remaining in the first. Neither team generated a whole lot of offense from that point on and the period ended tied 1-1.
Northern got off to a terrible start in the second period as Pierce was called for roughing less than a minute in. Just nine seconds later, Chargers center Max McHugh deflected a shot by Kurt Gosselin past Tolvanen for Huntsville’s only lead.
The Wildcats got their first decent scoring chance a few minutes later when Ryan Black’s shot was saved by Uhelski as NMU center Joseph Nardi fell on top of the goalie. Less than two minutes later, Northern cashed in on their next opportunity to retie it 2-2. With the puck behind the Chargers net, Nardi sent a pass to Mitch Slattery in the slot, who shot it past Uhelski while falling over.
With just over seven minutes left, NMU caught a huge break as Huntsville defenseman Cam Knight was whistled for a major penalty for contact to the head along with a game misconduct.
Knight’s penalty gave the Wildcats a five-minute power play and they quickly took advantage of it. First, Loggins sent a shot from the far circle that managed to get past Uhelski to give the Wildcats a 3-2 lead. Less than two minutes later, NMU struck again as a Loggins shot was saved by Uhelski but Pierce was right there to tap in the rebound to put the Wildcats up 4-2 headed to the third period.
Huntsville tried to get one back midway through the third as it forced Tolvanen to make two tough saves. The Chargers had a huge chance to cut their deficit in half with 9:55 left during a scramble in front of the net. McHugh appeared to have the angle on Tolvanen, but the goalie stretched out just in time to block it off.
With 22 seconds left and Uhelski pulled for the extra attacker, Loggins broke free down center ice. As he got to the net, he was taken down by Gosselin, but due to the net being empty at the time, the goal was counted to effectively end the game.
When asked what this win meant to him and his team, Potulny talked about how much the Wildcats have overcome, but especially how difficult it is to end an opponent’s year.
“To end somebody’s season is very challenging and you watch the faces and the grief and anger of their players coming through that handshake line, I think at that moment it hit our players,” he said. “This is such a hard thing to do and it’s never going to be easy.
“I thought we played great on Friday and I thought (Saturday), we were noncompetitive. That was probably our worst game of the year. I attribute some of that to nerves on trying to end somebody’s year. Until you can do it, you don’t know what it feels like.”
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-288-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.