Set to invade Sparta: Northern Michigan University hockey Wildcats take to the ice for the first time at Michigan State

Former Northern Michigan University forward Robbie Payne takes the puck down the ice during the third-place game against Michigan State at the Great Lakes Invitational held at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on Dec. 30, 2015. Also pictured are current Wildcats’ players James Vermeulen (2) and Denver Pierce (8). (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — The anticipation is over at last. Now it’s time to hit the ice.

After listening to all the hype for months and earning a bunch of preseason awards, the Northern Michigan University hockey team gets its chance to live up to high expectations this weekend when it opens the year on the road at Michigan State.

Northern is in a little different situation than other teams in the WCHA as most schools either played an exhibition game or their first regular- season games last weekend, so they already might be a step head of the Wildcats.

When asked if he’d rather have an exhibition game beforehand to prepare his team for the Spartans, Wildcats head coach Grant Potulny had mixed feelings.

“It’s a hard question because you can get a false sense of where your team is when you look at some of those scores,” he said. “I think Alaska (Fairbanks) beat somebody 13-1 (in an exhibition game against Simon Fraser) and they had a hard time scoring their first weekend (against Arizona State) and they didn’t get a goal.

Grant Potulny

“That’s the danger of playing those games and the danger of injury. What we did is play an intrasquad game and we got video from it. We cut it like it was a real game and we showed it to our guys yesterday.

“I think the guys were surprised on maybe some of the habits that still need to get shaken out of us, so I’m really happy with the way that went. I think it’s a renewed sense of focus of seeing where you are.

“At times, I think you have a false sense of the way practice is going, but games are different. Different things happen in games and different scenarios and I think that’s going to be helpful for us. You’re kind of darned if you do and darned if you don’t.”

Potulny may be able to see both sides in having an exhibition game, but he definitely sees the eagerness his team shown in getting back on the ice.

“This year with the change in the rules, we were allowed more time with the guys,” he said. “So we got an extra two hours a week and it’s a long time to practice without playing a game.

“Early, the guys were a little irritated with me because they wanted to get on the rink, but I didn’t want to get to the point where we got to this week and we were stale. So I wanted to get to the point where they’re hungry now.”

The Spartans aren’t a normal nonconference opponent for the Wildcats, as the last time that Northern took on MSU was in the third-place game at the Great Lakes Invitational in December 2015. Northern won that game 2-1 on an overtime goal by former forward Robbie Payne, who is now in the pro ranks in the American Hockey League.

MSU has been down for quite awhile as a program. It’s been unable to break the .500 mark since the 2014-15 season and hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2011-12. However, Potulny said that his squad isn’t taking MSU for granted.

“They’re top line is legit,” he said. “We talk about us having a legitimate first line (Adam Rockwood, Troy Loggins and Denver Pierce), they have a legitimate first line (Taro Hirose, Patrick Khodorenko and Mitchell Lewandowski).

“So we’re going to have to really pay attention to them. They have a freshman defenseman that was an NHL draft pick (Cole Krygier) last year (his brother Christian was too). He’s going to add to their element of their power play and they’re returning their whole first power play. So there’s going to be some high end that we’re going to have to pay attention to.

“They have a freshman goalie (Drew DeRidder) that I would assume we’d see (in) one of the games this weekend, if not both. He had a great year in the USHL and they’re returning a guy (John Lethemon) that played very well for them in net. He probably didn’t get as much ‘run support’ as they would’ve hoped, but they’re a hard-nosed well-coached hockey team.

“I think sometimes you think about a Big Ten school and maybe you think it’s run-and-gun and high-risk hockey and Michigan State is very hard-nosed and they’re very responsible. They don’t give … anything up and they’re not going to beat themselves.

“If our structure is not where it needs to be, we could be in trouble because they’re going to have guys back and you’re going to have to work and work to break them down. That will be the challenge for us. Can we break that structure and that team down?”

With the roster they have, the Wildcats certainly have the potential to not only break the Spartans down, but also have a successful season. Potulny said he wasn’t sure what the level of that potential is quite yet, but he did know what NMU’s season goals are.

“With each team, you don’t know what the ceiling of any team is,” he said. “As a coach, all you want to do is to have that team reach whatever its potential is. I think maybe the potential level is greater this year than it was last year.

“I don’t know what that end result is. In terms of goals, the No. 1 goal of every program in college hockey is to be one of those 16 teams that makes the (NCAA) tournament. We were very close last year, but close doesn’t cut it.

“I think there’s more emphasis on our nonconference opponents this year and putting us hopefully in a position where you can have a little bit of cushion. We didn’t maybe have that cushion last year.

“We had an eight-game winless streak and didn’t move much. If you end up losing a game, which is gonna happen, when you have a cushion from your nonconference opponents, that doesn’t affect you as much.

“I think right now the focus is on starting the year strong. We have a blue blood in college hockey and we want to go down there and compete with them and have a good showing. That’s our No. 1 goal and then we’ll move on to St. Cloud (State) and getting into our conference schedule.

“You always hope to have home ice. That’s the No. 1 goal. The longer you can have it, the better. Last year, we had it all the way to the end (in the WCHA tournament). I think it was a great hockey game the last game of the year and we’d love to have the opportunity to host that game again and have another crack at it.”

The puck drops at 7:05 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday in East Lansing.

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