Flush out the bad: Northern Michigan University Wildcats hockey team must quickly regroup after last weekend’s sweep with 2nd-place Bowling Green coming to town

Northern Michigan University’s James Vermeulen, left, carries the puck as Minnesota State’s Ty Readman stays close on Friday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Trinity Carey)

“Most importantly, we have got to make sure that we match their physicality.” — Grant Potulny, NMU head coach, on a key to playing Bowling Green State

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MARQUETTE — There were several ways to describe how last weekend went for the Northern Michigan University hockey team.

None are really positive, though. Whatever good feelings remained after the Friday opener, when the Wildcats fell to now-No. 6 Minnesota State by one goal in a hard-fought game, disappeared quickly as NMU was hit for three straight goals to start Saturday’s 8-2 blowout.

There might’ve been signs before the opening puck drop that things weren’t going to go well. Wildcats head coach Grant Potulny talked about what he felt and his concerns going forward.

“Like I said, my gut is usually right and I walked out of the pregame speech and I just didn’t like the feel in the room,” he said. “To be honest, I’m concerned about our starts. Ferris State scored first against us and we came back and won. (Alaska) Anchorage scored first and we came back and won. (Alaska) Fairbanks scored first and we came back and won.

“You can’t do that. You’re playing with fire, especially against good teams. That changes the complexion of the game when you’re playing from the front or you’re chasing the game. A big emphasis on Saturday was to come out and for whatever reason this year, we’ve not been able to start well at home and start fast.

“That’s kind of been the bread-and-butter of our program is that we come of the gates swinging. I didn’t think that we did that either. As well as we played on Friday, I thought we were just kind of dipping our toe in the water to start the game. It’s a concern and it’s an area that has to be adjusted.”

The Wildcats (13-12, 12-6 WCHA) will have to put that disastrous outing behind them as they host another opponent just as good as the Mavericks this weekend in No. 13/14 Bowling Green State.

Northern split with the Falcons (17-7-3, 12-6-2) on the road in early November, shutting them out in the Saturday game.

Potulny said his team knows what to expect from BGSU and said that his team needs to bring the same level of physical play that the Falcons will bring, especially since they have the No. 1-ranked defense in the country.

“Historically, that program has been a very hard-nosed team and they don’t beat themselves very often,” he said. “Especially with what’s become a pretty good rivalry in our conference, emotions are going to run high and we have to make sure that we match their intensity because they’re a physical hockey team. They’re going to be in your face and they’re not afraid to take a penalty through physicality because they feel they can kill it.

“So we’ve got to be sharp with our sticks and sharp on the power play, but most importantly, we have got to make sure that we match their physicality.”

BGSU swept the Mavericks back in December, but has split its last four series and was shut out by Ferris State on Saturday. So this might be the good time for Northern to face the Falcons, but to sweep them, the Wildcats will have to learn from Saturday’s nightmare.

It was an uncharacteristically bad game, especially for NMU goalie Atte Tolvanen, who was pulled from a game for the first time this season, though he later returned. The Wildcats’ normally stout penalty kill also faltered, giving up three power-play tallies.

Potulny said that despite that rough night, Tolvanen has moved on from his performance.

“I talked to him (Tolvanen) after the game and he was still emotional and I asked him to park it,” Potulny said. “(On Monday), he spoke with (goalie coach and ex-NMU goaltender) Dieter (Kochan) and I think there’s a lot of value in that.

“They’re both such competitive people and Dieter played the position. I think there’s things maybe that they talk about that I don’t need to know. Like any position player, the forwards have Rob (Lehtinen), the ‘D’ have Byron (Pool) and the goalies have Dieter.

“I think that relationship, especially coming from that relationship at my previous job, it’s really important that you’re close to your guys. There’s things that maybe I didn’t run up the flag pole there and there’s things maybe I don’t need to know about here.

“I think after talking to Dieter, based on just what he shared with me, Atte is good. He’s ready to move on, he flushed it and he’s excited for Bowling Green.”

Potulny also said that he’s still confident in the penalty kill, which had been lockdown efficient until Saturday. Not only that, but he’s also positive that the Wildcats still have a decent chance of sitting in first place at the end of the season.

“I think a couple of those were just a by-product of for the first time since I’ve been here, Atte just didn’t see the puck well,” the head coach said. “It is what it is. Everybody has a bad game and he’s had essentially one. It just happened to be on Saturday. I think the penalty kill has been a strength of ours and it was one of those nights. There’s an old line in athletics where everyone is eligible for a butt-kicking and it was just our turn.

“As much as last week didn’t go well, we’re still in the hunt to finish first. Had we split the weekend, we’d be even-steven. Had we swept them, we’d be in the driver(‘s) seat.

“Well none of those things happened. Now we’ve got to make sure to finish what we did last year because we all know the importance of finishing second. It keeps you home through the first two rounds and should anything happen, a la last year, you have a chance to host a championship game.

“The reality is it’s not just Northern Michigan and Bowling Green. Lake (Superior) State’s there. Michigan Tech’s there and all of a sudden, Bemidji (State)’s there.

“Those are our opponents coming up in the next six weeks. So we need to make sure that every weekend, we’re as dialed in as we can be.”

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