Special teams propel Wildcats

Northern Michigan’s James Vermeulen, front, slides to defend their goal against Minnesota State as goaltender Mathias Israelsson looks on Saturday night, Nov.4, 2017, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — Robbie Payne has scored some sharp-looking goals during his career at Northern Michigan University, but Saturday night’s tally was definitely most unique.

With NMU killing a penalty at the 14:55 mark of the second period, the Wildcats brought the puck into the Minnesota State zone. Heading toward the net with the puck, Payne was taken down in front and hit MSU goalie Jason Pawloski. While on his back and the puck laying just in front of him, Payne then blindly backhanded it behind him and it slid past Pawloski’s leg.

“It definitely was the weirdest goal I’ve had,” he said with a laugh. “It hit my hand first and I pushed it back out. (Zach) Diamantoni actually shot it first and it went off my chest. Then I laid on my butt, saw it again and luckily, I whacked it in.”

It was one of three special-teams tallies in the second period as the Wildcats forged a split with the No. 9 Mavericks with a 4-1 victory. Northern goalie Mathias Israelsson also earned his first win of the season by making 23 saves.

In addition to Payne’s shorthander, NMU (5-3, 3-1 WCHA) scored two power play goals by Troy Loggins and Darien Craighead while shutting down the Mavericks (6-3, 4-2) on the penalty kill.

“Our power play was coming and you could see it,” NMU head coach Grant Potulny said. “We had some chances last night and it was starting to come. That’s kind of how it goes. You don’t always get rewarded when you start to do things the right way, but if you keep doing it, it will come.

“Our special teams were the reason we won the game.”

While NMU’s shots were just off the mark in the first period, MSU’s were not. At the end of a shift, the Mavericks had a 2-on-1 break and Winnipeg Jets prospect C.J. Suess tucked a wrister under Israelsson’s blocker at the 8:43 mark.

Northern’s best scoring chance in the opening period came less than three minutes later. Forward Denver Pierce got a partial breakaway at the MSU blue line, but his backhand was just wide as he was dragged down by Mavericks defenseman Daniel Brickley.

The Wildcats started the second period with the same speed as they did in the first and three minutes in, they were paid off. Loggins got a great feed from Adam Rockwood at the far post and one-timed it past Pawloski to tie the score.

Up 2-1 late in the frame thanks to Payne’s goal, NMU’s special teams struck again. Three seconds before intermission, Craighead fired a wrister during a power play that went through Pawloski’s five-hole, making it 3-1.

“This feels really great,” Israelsson said. “It was so nice to be out there playing again, so I just went out there and tried to have fun.”

Potulny also praised Israelsson on his first win and liked how he calmed down after giving up a goal.

“He played excellent,” Potulny said. “He looked really calm in the net. After (the MSU goal) he just shut the door, battled and there were some scoring chances that he did a good job on. His rebound control was also really good.”

The third period was mostly uneventful until the end when Loggins bagged an empty netter.

NMU plays home-and-home with Michigan Tech next weekend. Friday’s game is in Houghton and Saturday’s in Marquette.

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