Northern Michigan University icers to face Bowling Green for 2nd straight year in WCHA playoff semifinals

NMU goaltender Atte Tolvanen, right, prepares to snag a shot from Alaska Fairbanks forward Kylar Hope during their WCHA playoff game on Saturday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Trinity Carey)

MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University hockey team had to fight its way through the first round of the WCHA playoffs last weekend, coming back on each night to eliminate Alaska-Fairbanks with a pair of one-goal victories.

The No. 2-seeded Wildcats can’t afford to do that again this weekend as they face No. 15-ranked and third-seeded Bowling Green State in the semifinals at the Berry Events Center.

NMU (21-14-2, 18-8-2 WCHA) also took on the Falcons (23-9-5, 16-8-4) last season with the ‘Cats winning the best-of-three series on the third night with an overtime goal by Troy Loggins.

Whereas the Nanooks were a scrappy team that put up a much tougher fight than many people expected, BGSU is an all-around strong team. The Falcons are second in the nation in team defense and on the penalty kill, and ninth overall in team offense, so this will arguably be the most difficult series NMU has faced all season, even though it split the four games against the Falcons during the regular season.

“Special teams are going to be really important,” Wildcats head coach Grant Potulny said. “If you just look at the numbers, they’re a heck of a hockey team. They’ve got the top-five wins in the country.

“On the defensive side of the puck, they’re top-three in both penalty kill and team defense. Then on the offensive side, they’re in the top 10 in scoring.

“The biggest thing for us is going to be our ability to play with pace and use the ice sheet to our advantage. You fight and you claw and scratch to get home ice. There’s a reason that home ice is so valuable, especially for us.

“We have got to make sure that we have incredible pace and incredible speed and play at a level where it’s a little bit of a track meet. That’s how we want to play the game.”

The Wildcats will have to be ready to go from the opening puck drop, which they weren’t either night against Alaska. They gave up the first goal Friday, rallied to take the lead early in the second period and then gave up three straight tallies. NMU was forced to rally in the third, needing a goal from Adam Rockwood with 14 seconds left to stay alive before winning it on Joseph Nardi’s goal in the second overtime.

Northern also fell behind Saturday, this time 2-0 before coming back again, but Potulny said he felt differently that night.

“I don’t think we had an appreciation for playoff intensity on Friday night,” he said. “We hung in there and that point, you’re just trying to encourage them as much as you can. We kind of came alive in the third period and got within one and then you just need a chance to pull your goalie. Obviously, Adam made a play and then we made the play in overtime.

“The same thing happened Saturday, we fell behind, but it was a different feeling on the bench. The bench was alive. There was intensity. The guys were playing hard and I felt like Saturday that it was just a matter of time for us to get on the board.

“When we score, it jump-starts us and we’ve got to figure out a way to get that energy without getting a goal. I figured if we could get one, we’d have a chance in the game and we scored four straight.”

After Friday night’s excitement, Rockwood said his line needed to play better. It did on Saturday with Loggins and Denver Pierce each scoring goals to register the sweep. Potulny said that he’s been impressed with his top line and it’ll be important that Rockwood, Loggins and Pierce stay hot against the Falcons.

“To be honest, since they’ve been together, it’s been six games now, five of the six I thought they were the best three players on the rink,” Potulny said. “We need them to play that way. Matchups become important, especially at the end of the year, and if you have a line that can spend the majority of the time on the offensive end and eliminate the other teams’ top guys, not only does that give you a boost on the offensive end, but it’s frustrating the other team.

“When your best players are getting outplayed, there’s a little bit of a deflation that happens on the bench. By their play, they’ve done that to some of the better players in this league.”

The final key to success that the Wildcats need to top BGSU is to remember how to close out playoff series, since it’s been shown over and over again that it’s not easy to end a team’s season.

Last year, the Falcons won the second game to force a deciding third game, and Alabama-Huntsville did the same thing the series before that, so that will probably be lingering in the back of the Wildcats’ minds, especially with a Friday win.

“I was hoping that we learned from our previous run in the playoffs of how hard it is,” Potulny said. “If you look back at history, we had big wins on Friday night in the first two rounds and couldn’t close the deal out on Saturday. As much as we struggled Friday to win the game (against Alaska), the maturity of our team to be able to come back and close the game out on Saturday is really important.

“When you get to that Sunday game, you don’t know what can happen. I hope that this year we learned from the first round and everybody is fighting for their lives. It doesn’t matter what place people are in.

“I’m real certain that we won’t have that type of mental letdown this weekend based on the history of playing this team and the fact that it’s become a big rivalry for us.”

The puck drops at 7 p.m. EDT on Friday and Saturday nights, and if necessary, Sunday night. If the Wildcats win the series, they will either travel to top-seeded Minnesota State or host fourth-seeded Lake Superior State in the WCHA Championship game next weekend.

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