Wildcats move on to Wisconsin

NMU icers set to face Badgers in Green Bay

Lake Superior State’s Aidan Wright, right, body checks Northern Michigan’s Philip Beaulieu Saturday night, Oct. 7, 2017. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — Last weekend, the Northern Michigan University hockey team picked up its first sweep of the season, something that took until late January to happen last year.

Now after getting two road wins at Ferris State, the Wildcats will face their toughest opponent so far in No. 6 Wisconsin (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten), a team that some are considering a national title contender.

NMU head coach Grant Potulny used to coach against the Badgers when he was at Minnesota and he says that their recent coaching and style changes have helped turn their program around.

“They’re kind of in a similar situation and they’re one year ahead of us in the process,” he said. “A change in the philosophy in how they play, and maybe a change in recruiting. has got them to the point of being an elite offensive team. For us. that’s going to be a real test. You can’t shorten the rink against them and we’ve got to be good on the penalty kill. With teams like this, you can be controlling the pace of the game, but because their sticks are so good, sometimes all it takes is just one shot and you can be in trouble. We have to make sure that we’re above the puck and that we play a smart game, we manage the puck and we play Wildcat hockey. We want to push the pace like we do every weekend, back at them.”

It’s still early in the season, so it’s hard to truly assess where the Badgers are at. However, they are a skilled team offensively and is ranked No. 9 in the nation that category. Wisconsin is also coming off a 20-15-1 season, which was a complete turnaround from the previous year (8-19-8) that led to the firing of head coach Mike Eaves. Star player Luke Kunin is gone, but Big Ten freshman of the year Trent Frederic (15 goals, 33 points last season) and assist machine Cameron Hughes (25 assists, 32 points) are back.

The Badgers’ weakness last year was in net, but they seem to have found a solid goalie in graduate transfer Kyle Hayton, who has a goals against average of 2.01 and a .927 save percentage.

Wisconsin is also on a three-game winning streak and took down Michigan Tech in the U.S Hockey Hall of Fame Game to start the season. So it’s going to be a tough battle this weekend and NMU (3-1, 2-0 WCHA) will have to fix its inconsistent penalty kill if it wants to keep up with the Badgers.

“I think the penalty kill has been our Achilles heel a little bit,” Potulny said. “We’ve dodged some bullets and won some games while giving up goals on the penalty kill. We can’t expect to go the whole year giving up zero goals on 5-on-5. That’s just not going to be the case. Hockey has become a race to three (goals). If you’re giving up a couple of power play goals every night and then you’re giving up an even strength, then there’s your three. So we have to keep shoring up our kill.

“I think this weekend we did a really good job though. On the 5-on-3 (Friday), they were going to get a shot. It missed high, banked off the back wall and went in off our goalie (Atte Tolvanen)’s back and in. On the other one, guys were trying to block a shot and we drifted through the area and the other guy on their team had some patience, pulled it back in and made a nice shot. Other than that, we’re not giving up a ton. We’re doing a great job keeping the puck to the outside. You hope that’s a trend going the right way and not just a blip on the radar. We’re working a lot on that in practice and coaching it and watching it on video. It’s getting better, but I think it will be a real challenge this weekend because of the elite ability of their (Wisconsin’s) offensive sticks.”

Potulny not only liked how the penalty kill had gotten better on Saturday, but how the team played as a whole over the course of the weekend.

“It was a good start for us on the road,” he said. “Any time you go out on the road, you want to come back with points. On Friday night, it probably took 10 minutes to get in the game. We kind of held on for the first 10 minutes and everybody is going to push in their home rink. After that, we settled in. For the most part, we defended really well and I don’t think that we gave up a ton of Grade As.

On Saturday, we really played a good game. In the third period, the scoring chances were 8 to 1 (in favor of) us. You kind of felt like it was coming and you just hoped that there was enough time left to complete the push that we had. So it was a good weekend and now we have to put it to bed and move on to Wisconsin.”

This weekend’s games will take place at the Resch Center in Green Bay (Wis.) and NMU will be considered the home team. Friday’s game will start at 8 p.m. EDT and Saturday’s game at 6 p.m. EDT.