Wildcats back at the Berry

NMU icers return home to face Alabama-Huntsville

Goaltender Mathias Israelsson defends the goal during a Nov. 4, 2017 game against Minnesota State. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — Thanksgiving weekend can wear you out with the large amounts of food, the long hours of preparation and the stress of hosting family members.

The Northern Michigan University hockey team looked as if it was dealing with a Thanksgiving hangover of its own last weekend as the Wildcats were swept on the road by Nebraska-Omaha.

The good thing though is they have a decent chance to recover this weekend as they return home after a two-week road trip to take on Alabama-Huntsville.

However, getting two wins won’t be a cakewalk like in years past against the Chargers. Huntsville (5-8-1, 4-3-1 WCHA) has improved a lot the past couple of years and it is only two points behind Northern (7-7, 5-3) in the WCHA standings. It also has turned its season around after a rough start by earning splits with Arizona State, Lake Superior State and with Ferris State last weekend.

NMU head coach Grant Potulny said Tuesday that the Chargers will be a big test for the Wildcats as they appear to be designed to excel at the Berry Events Center.

“I’ve never played them, never coached against them and I don’t think even watched them at all,” he said. “So I turn the tape on and the game starts and I was like ‘oh boy.’ These guys, they’re competitive as all get out and they’re fast. I didn’t know what to expect turning the tape on. I know their coach (Mike Corbett) and I know his demeanor. Their team kind of plays like their coach. Some teams might struggle on our ice surface, but I think they’re kind of tailor-made to come in and play right with us, so we’ve got to be prepared.”

This is an interesting matchup as Northern and Huntsville are very different on the ice. The Chargers look solid offensively, led by Josh Kestner (eight goals, 12 points) and Brennan Saulnier (seven goals, 11 points), but weak on defense (tied for 49th in the nation). The Wildcats, on the other hand, are tied for 48th on offense and tied 26th on defense.

However, there is one area where NMU has a distinct advantage over UAH and that’s on the penalty kill. The Wildcats have risen up to 17th in the country in that area after a disastrous opening weekend and have killed off 41 of their last 43 penalties, while the Chargers sit 50th.

Potulny said there are two reasons for Northern’s dramatic turnaround on the penalty kill and it’s the efforts of his assistant coaches and the PK unit’s willingness to block shots.

“Byron (Pool) and Rob (Lehtinen) have done a really good job coaching the penalty kill up, first and foremost,” he said. “Number two, we’ve had guys really buy in. You have to block shots. No matter how you want to kill, whether you want to push down, or if you want to transfer, or if you want to rotate or however you want to do it, you have to have guys who are willing to block shots and we have that. We have guys in lanes and we’ve done a good job keeping people to the outside. So the shots we’re giving up are kind of to the outside and if they’re not blocked, our layers underneath kind of clean the sheet out in front of the goalies so there’s not any rebounds. Our clears have gotten much better and our faceoffs have gotten better. Those areas have drastically improved.”

The smaller storyline heading into the weekend is NMU’s goaltending situation. The Wildcats have split duties between Atte Tolvanen and Mathias Israelsson the majority of the season, but neither has emerged as the No. 1 netminder. This could be Israelsson’s big chance though as Potulny said he will probably play both games against the Chargers.

“I think you’ll see Israelsson both games this weekend,” he said. “I think he’s worked hard in practice and he’s done some good things. Medically is what’s keeping Atte out of it. That’s why he didn’t play last weekend.”

Looking back at the Omaha series, the two games were like night and day with the Wildcats playing competitively on Friday and looking exhausted Saturday.

“We didn’t start the game on time on Friday and they scored early on us and we had to kind of claw back,” Potulny said. “I think the third period of the game, 14 to two shots, was probably as good of a period as we’ve had. We probably deserved to win the game, but that’s hockey. On Saturday conversely, I thought it was one of the poorer games we’ve played all year. There’s a lot that goes into that. It’s the end of a 10-day road trip and you kind of had an emotional game on Friday that just didn’t go your way and sometimes that’s going to happen. The challenge now is getting back home where we’ve been good and get kind of on track again.”

Both Friday’s and Saturday’s games start at 7 p.m. at the Berry Events Center.

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