Wildcats are Minnesota bound

NMU icers head out to face first place Mankato

NMU’s Darien Craighead, left and FSU’s Nate Kallen in action Saturday evening, December 16, 2017 at the Berry Events Center (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

MARQUETTE — It’s been a bitterly cold week here in the Upper Peninsula and the Northern Michigan University hockey team won’t get to escape it for two weeks as they head out to just-as-frozen Minnesota to take on Minnesota State-Mankato.

The weather shouldn’t be on the minds of the Wildcats, though, as this is a key series with NMU in a three-way tie for second place in the WCHA, five points behind the first-place Mavericks.

Earlier this season, Northern (10-8-2, 8-4-2 WCHA) split with Mankato in Marquette as the Wildcats pumped in three goals on special teams, including a shorthanded tally from Robbie Payne, to get a win on Saturday. Northern is tied for first in the nation in shorties with five.

NMU will have to be especially effective on special teams if it wants to have success against the high-powered Mavericks. MSU (13-5, 11-3) is arguably one of the most complete teams in the country and is effective on both sides of the puck, sitting third nationally in team offense and sixth in defense.

The Mavericks use a balanced attack led by forwards C.J. Suess and Zeb Knutson, each of whom has eight goals. Last year’s WCHA Rookie of the Year Marc Michaelis is also a scoring threat with seven tallies and Jake Jaremko is an assist machine with 15.

“They’re a good team and I think when you think about Mankato, they’re just so deep,” NMU head coach Grant Potulny said in a phone interview last week. “They do have some top-end guys that are pretty good, but their depth is probably as good as anybody in college hockey.

“That’s going to be a challenge for us. I really don’t play guys against guys like some teams strictly match lines. I don’t really get too concerned with that.

“When you play Mankato, you can’t be concerned with that hardly at all. Their depth is so good that we’re going to have to have all 12 (forwards), all six (defensemen) and both goalies playing at a high level, because if you have any chinks in your armor they’re going to make you pay.”

If all of that isn’t enough, MSU is also effective on special teams, third in the country on the power play and tied for 10th on the penalty kill.

Starting goaltender Connor LaCouvee (9-2) is having a strong season as well as he’s fifth in the country in goals-against average at 1.82 per game. Backup Jason Pawloski isn’t bad either as he has two shutouts with one coming against NMU.

Potulny won’t make the trip to Mankato as he will is serving as an assistant coach at the World Junior Championships in Buffalo, New York. Depending on how the tournament goes, he also might not coach at the Ice Vegas Invitational the following weekend in Las Vegas.

However, he has faith that his assistant coaches will do a good job in his absence.

“You miss those guys, but (NMU assistants) Byron (Pool) and Rob (Lehtinen) are great coaches,” Potulny said. “They’ll do a great job with the team and I’ll talk with them every day and follow them closely, watching the games (online) on WCHA.tv, so I’ll stay up to date with what’s going on.”

As intimidating as the Mavericks are, the Wildcats are coming into the weekend hot. After picking up four points on the road at Bemidji, Northern swept Ferris State at home last weekend for the second time this season.

Both Payne and Jordan Klimek had two goals during Friday’s blowout win with Klimek earning WCHA Defensive Player of the Week honors. Darien Craighead then picked up a hat trick the next night to complete the sweep.

After the Saturday win over FSU, Potulny said that he was proud of his team and what it had accomplished so far. He reiterated those same thoughts last week, also saying that he’s been impressed with his team’s attitude and work ethic.

“Like any team, you’re going to have a little bit of a peak and a valley,” he said. “I think that we’ve got a resilient group and they’ve shown that they can respond to coaching. It’s important to them and I think that we’ve been rewarded because we’re willing to sacrifice things to have success.

“We practice really hard and we push them really hard and every day they come and want to get better. They want to learn and when you’re willing to work and you have a good attitude and are willing to pay the price to have success, usually that success follows closely behind you.

“If that attitude and that work ethic stays that high, I think we’re going to have a real strong second half.”

Friday and Saturday’s games start at 8:07 p.m. EST at the Verizon Center in Mankato.

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