Ranked and ready for rivals

NMU icers set for Michigan Tech

From left, Northern Michigan's Robbie Payne, goaltender Mathias Israelsson, and James Vermeulen defend the goal during a Nov. 4, 2017 game against Minnesota State. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — Mark it down on your calendar.

The Northern Michigan University hockey team is now ranked for the first time in three years. After earning a home split with No. 10/11 Minnesota State last weekend, the Wildcats are now No. 20 in this week’s USCHO poll and received votes in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll. This is the first time NMU has been ranked since Dec. 1, 2014.

But the Wildcats can’t just be satisfied with that accomplishment as they take on rival Michigan Tech in a home-and-home series this weekend. Last season, Northern won only one of four games against the Huskies.

NMU head coach Grant Potulny felt this way about the rankings and wants to focus on this hyped-up series with Tech.

“They were aware of it,” he said Tuesday. “I’m happy for them to be rewarded and acknowledged for their hard work, but it’s a long season. The only one that matters is the last Pairwise (rankings) before the NCAA Tournament.

“We have to make sure that we’re continuing to get wins and continuing to move up the chart and stay relevant in that poll because that’s the one that matters in the end. I’m happy for the guys because they have put in a lot of hard work at this point, but at this point, it doesn’t mean much.”

With the Huskies, Northern faces a squad on a bit of a slide. Tech hasn’t won in five games after a good start and has looked awful on the penalty kill during that skid.

All four of Bowling Green State’s goals against MTU last weekend came on its power play, while the Huskies gave up two in a sweep by Minnesota State.

As a result, the Huskies are now ranked No. 59 out of the 60 NCAA Division I schools in that category, which doesn’t bode well for them against an NMU team that seems to be clicking on special teams.

Even though Tech is struggling, Potulny isn’t shrugging off the series, which will probably be sold out both nights. He talked about how the games against BGSU and Mankato were close and that the Huskies won’t be taken lightly.

“They have a lot of guys on that team that have had a lot of success,” Potulny said of Tech. “They won the Icebreaker (Tournament) and beat quality opponents. They’ve played four tough games.

“Mankato is a good team and Bowling Green is showing that it is a really good team. Did they come out on the wrong end of those games? Yeah, but they were really close games. They’re right in every one of them and it’s one bounce one way or one bounce the other way.

“Had they won the four games or had they lost the four games, that doesn’t change my feeling about their program or their team.”

When asked if he knew anything about the NMU-Tech rivalry before he moved here, Potulny said he’d heard of it, but until he arrived in the Upper Peninsula, he didn’t know how big it was.

“It’s hard to know because you don’t have any background for it,” he said. “You’ve heard of it, but until you’re living it, you wouldn’t know. To be honest, it’s very similar to my old job (at Minnesota). There were a couple of border schools (North Dakota, Wisconsin) that were big-time rivals.

“This week is no different. I know that our guys are laser-focused for the weekend because of the opponent and I’m sure for our opponent, we have their full attention also.”

Looking back at last weekend’s split with the Mavericks, Northern had a rough night Friday. The Wildcats were shut out and Potulny wasn’t pleased with how his top players performed. So he changed up some of the lines and Northern took down Minnesota State 4-1 with the help of two power play goals and a wacky, highlight-reel goal from Robbie Payne.

When asked about his frustration with his top players, Potulny said that because they get a lot of ice time, they need to contribute and thought that they played significantly better Saturday.

“That’s the burden and responsibility of the ice time those guys get,” he said. “On Friday, I thought they led the charge a little bit in the turnover category and a lack of physical play. We talked about that as a group, and on Saturday, I thought they led the charge the right way.

“The game starts and we put some pucks below the goal line. There’s physicality and (forward) Adam Rockwood’s finishing hits.

“Guys are stepping out of their comfort zone to try to play the game plan. It kind of gets infectious for the rest of the guys. I thought they were great on Saturday.

“We still need to continue to find more depth scoring. It’s been the same guys that have scored all year.”

Potulny also praised NMU’s penalty kill, which gave up only one goal to the high-powered Mavericks and seems to be more consistent.

“It’s coming,” he said. “I think the penalty kill, even though it did give up that one goal on the weekend, was good. If you’re going to give up a goal from there, I think you’re never OK with that. But when you’re coaching a penalty kill, people are going to get shots.

“That was just one of those weird ones that got through Atte (Tolvanen). We really didn’t give up a ton of scoring chances. We did a good job keeping the puck to the outside and we did a good job blocking shots.

“We had a season-high Saturday of hits, blocks and turnovers. Those things go hand in hand and you saw the outcome of the game.

“Penalty kill is no different. If you have the chance to clear the puck and you clear it 200 feet, that’s 15 seconds. You block a shot, that’s a save the goalie doesn’t have to make.

“Some of those things go together. I think we’re doing a way better job on the special teams. Now we just need to generate some five-on-five (scoring chances) more.”

A big part of that penalty kill was the play of backup goalie Mathias Israelsson. He got his first start of the season Saturday and after giving up an early tally, shut down the Mavericks the rest of the night to earn WCHA Goaltender of the Week honors.

“He earned that opportunity in practice and in mop-up duty against Wisconsin,” Potulny said. “Giving up the first one, I thought his angle was off and I don’t think that he’d probably take that angle again on a shooter like that.

“From that point on, he made the game easy for himself. He put every puck into a non-dangerous area whether it went into the crowd or he covered it. To do that makes the game easier on our defensemen and hopefully, he can continue to do that.”

When asked who would play in net this weekend, Potulny wouldn’t commit to anything but did say the goalies have to earn their opportunities.

“You earn your ice time in our program and that position is no different than anyone else,” he said.

Friday’s game is at 7 p.m. in Houghton and Saturday’s will be at 7 p.m. in Marquette.

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