Wildcats start fresh

NMU icers start with new coach, new styles of play

Northern Michigan University’s Robbie Payne (29), shoots in the first period against Bowling Green State on Nov. 12, 2016, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — Last season was the epitome of up and down for the Northern Michigan University hockey team.

The Wildcats had an atrocious first half, going on an eight-game winless streak at one point and not picking up their first home victory until Jan. 7.

Then they turned things around in the second half, building off a six-game winning streak that included five shutouts in a row by goalie Atte Tolvanen. That earned them the eighth and final spot in the WCHA playoffs.

After all of that, NMU wasn’t given much respect in this fall’s preseason polls, which picked the Wildcats to finish seventh. But head coach Grant Potulny is shrugging off the predictions and instead has focused on putting a good team on the ice. Even though NMU hasn’t been practiced for long, the new bench boss likes what he sees so far.

“I think the guys are excited to have a fresh start,” he said in a Wednesday interview. “For all of them, it’s an opportunity to have fresh eyes on them. On purpose, I’ve watched very little game tape. I watched enough to know how they played and certain areas where we’ll have to do things different.

“Video doesn’t always tell the truth. There’s a lot of things that happen within a game where video can skew your opinion one way or the other. So I wanted to have fresh eyes and a fresh opportunity to see everyone play.

“I’ve been really impressed with the energy and the willingness to conform to the way we are playing. I’m definitely encouraged by a lot of things.”

This year’s team has a healthy mix of upperclassmen and newcomers. It’s still early, but Potulny has already determined who the leaders are going to be. He also is impressed about how the freshmen have adapted to the college level.

“When you look at our team, the four seniors have definitely put a lot of sweat into this program, whether those guys wear letters on their jerseys or not,” he said. “The junior class is a large class and those guys have played a lot of minutes. I think they have to do a good job of continuing to show the younger guys the right way of doing things this year, and so far, they’ve done a great job.

“The line of (Robbie) Payne, (Zach) Diamantoni and (Darien) Craighead had a great finish last year and with Troy (Loggins) at times, I think you can see his skill set and he’s had a great camp.

“Adam Rockwood is eligible and that gives us some talent down the middle. (Anthony) Paskaruk and (Joseph) Nardi, who is a freshman, have shown a lot, too. I like our centers. Those are four good centers.

“I’ve been really impressed with the freshmen who have come in too and maybe because they aren’t behind the 8-ball as much because it’s new to everybody.

“Most programs, when the freshmen class comes in, they’re behind what everyone else is doing. Here, those guys are the same as everybody. It’s all new terminology and new systems.

“Maybe that’s why so far they’ve looked better than what most freshmen look like, but I’m encouraged by them, too.”

The first position that comes to mind is goaltender when a lot of people think about Northern. And the Wildcats are bringing back the talented tandem of Tolvanen and Mathias Israelsson. So far, Potulny has been impressed by the twosome, especially their work ethic.

“First and foremost, if you were a young player and you wanted to see how a pro approaches his day, you’d follow those two around,” Potulny said. “There’s a half-hour or 40-minute warmup and those two are already preparing for it or in the weight room.

“When they’re on the ice, it’s almost like they’re offended if somebody scores on them. The way they approach every drill has been incredible. To be honest, I don’t know (that) in all my years in college hockey, if I’ve been around two goalies who are that professional and that serious about their craft.”

In addition to their natural talent, this duo has the ability to shake off goals or a tough performance. Potulny says that is an important quality and that he believes with those two goalies that the Wildcats have a chance to win every game.

“In athletics in general, the old saying is that you have to park it and move on,” he said. “In that position (goaltender), it’s especially important because you’re all alone at the end of the ice.

“If your line isn’t having a great game, you have another three lines to back you up. If your d(efense)-man isn’t having a good game, you have five others to pick you up.

“When you’re a goalie, you’re on your own. If something happens in the game, you’re behind the 8-ball a little bit and you can let that affect your game and it becomes infectious.

“The reverse can also happen and that is that goalies can make you feel really good about your game.

“I think those guys have shown that at times last year, especially in the back (second) half. We go into every contest expecting to have a chance to win and those two give us that chance.”

Potulny also thinks the Wildcats have a good defensive corps returning. However, instead of simply playing a bruising, physical style of defense, he wants his players to be able to not only hit hard, but use their sticks as well.

“I think we have a nice mix of defensemen and the one thing about defense is that you have to stop the puck,” he said. “There’s two ways of doing that. Rylan (Yaremko), Connor (Frantti) and some other guys can stop it with physicality. Guys like (Jordan) Klimek, (Phil) Beaulieu and other guys, they can stop it with their feet and stick.

“You have to take away people’s time and space and stop the puck. That’s one area where we have been spending some time.

“We’ve been focusing on both stopping the puck and closing in on guys. The big thing that I want guys to know is that you have to be physical when you can, but even if you’re not overly huge, you can still defend with your stick and feet. They’ve done a great job with that.”

When it comes to offense, Potulny made it clear at his first press conference, and several times since then, that he wants his skaters to focus on speed and improvisation when they have the puck. It can take awhile to adapt to a new style of play, but Potulny thinks that they’ve made a lot of progress in a short period of time.

“I think the first couple of practices were really good because we did things like just skate and touch pucks and do different things,” he said. “Then we had to touch on different areas of our games. Yesterday, we focused on our rush defense. We did a drill where it was 2-on-2 and in our minds, it was going to be rush defense.

“We started and suddenly, the guys are scoring goals like crazy. As a coach, part of you thinks we need to keep working on our rush D, but the other part says all right, we’re coming along. Here it is and they’re getting rewarded for doing what we talked about.

“As a player, I think you want to play that way. You want the puck on your stick and you want to make a hockey play. You want to be able to play fast and with freedom and they’re getting that right now.”

The Wildcats’ open the season next weekend with a home-and-home series against Lake Superior State. Potulny is excited to officially get things started and has a goal in mind — it’s pretty simple.

“Excited is probably an understatement,” he said. “As a coach, you just want the best for them. You know they are getting better and you want them to have success early so that they can feel better.

“I can see the growth from where we started to where we’re at. I hope that we can have some success early, so that they can feel good about their game.

“I don’t know what the ceiling is for this team to start the year. Usually, you have a decent idea if you’ve had a group for a couple of years.

“Right now, I kind of know where we could be. All you hope for is that your team reaches whatever ceiling they have for that year. I don’t know what that is yet, but as long as we reach it, then I know that it was a successful year. That is my hope for this season.”