‘Cats offense explodes in 7-1 playoff win

Northern Michigan’s Zach Diamantini keeps his eye on the puck in the Alabama-Huntsville zone Friday night, Mar. 2, 2018, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)


Journal Sports Writer

MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University hockey team hosted its first playoff game in six years on Friday night.

The Wildcats made sure to quickly take advantage of home ice.

The No. 19 Wildcats erupted for four goals before the first period was halfway over and rolled to a 7-1 win over Alabama-Huntsville in Game 1 of their WCHA first-round, best-of-three series at the Berry Events Center. Robbie Payne and Denver Pierce each had two goals for Northern while Adam Rockwood had four assists.

“It’s important that we started the game the way we did,” NMU head coach Grant Potulny said. “At the end of the game, there was some open ice and stuff like that, but the beginning of the game was very competitive.

“It started the first shift of the game with some physicality out of us and that’s how (tonight) is going to be. Just like in their locker room, this game’s over. Now (tonight) is a new opportunity and a new challenge for us and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready for it.”

It didn’t take long for NMU (22-12-3, 19-7-2-2 WCHA) to get its engine going. The Wildcats came into the game tied for the national lead in shorthanded goals and they got another one just two minutes in.

Northern forward Troy Loggins picked off a pass at the NMU blue line, sent the puck over to Rockwood, who returned the pass to Loggins for the junior to beat Huntsville goalie Jordan Uhelski glove-side.

Just three minutes later, the Wildcats struck again. Marquette native Brett Heikkila took the puck behind the Chargers’ (11-22-2, 10-16-2-1) net and passed it to Demico Hannoun, who shot it into an open net.

Less than a minute after Hannoun’s tally, NMU notched their third goal of when co-captain Zach Diamantoni sent a cross-ice pass to fellow co-captain Payne, who tapped it into the open net.

Northern wasn’t done, though. At the 8:50 mark, Wildcats defenseman Phil Beaulieu skated around the back of the net and backhanded a pass across the ice to an open Pierce, who beat Uhelski blocker-side. At that point, Uhelski was pulled for backup Matt Sinclair, who finished the period.

When asked about the constant pressure the Wildcats put in the Huntsville defensive zone, Rockwood said the team was just ready to go in its first postseason game.

“I think we were excited,” he said. “It was our first playoff game and I think we just played well. Every line had good chemistry and when our ‘D’ plays well in the offensive zone, we play a lot better. I thought they were really good tonight and obviously, our forwards stepped up too.”

The second period was fairly uneventful until late as Huntsville did a good job cutting down on Northern’s scoring chances.

However, the Chargers’ frustration eventually boiled over with about four minutes left. Huntsville’s Brennan Saulnier and Northern’s James Vermeulen shoved each other along the boards and both were sent to the box.

Saulnier was visibly upset with the call and yelled at the officials from inside the penalty box. After slamming his stick against the glass, he was ejected and continued to scream at the officials as he left the ice. Saulnier then took out his frustrations in the hallway by pummeling both a Gatorade cooler and the wall with his stick.

As a result of Saulnier’s actions, the Wildcats ended up on the power play and took advantage quickly. Rockwood patiently waited behind the Huntsville net and then passed it to Pierce, who one-timed it past Sinclair to put Northern up 5-0 heading into the third.

Northern kept pouring it on in the last frame. With 13:09 remaining, Phil Beaulieu snapped a wrister under the crossbar and after a brief review, the Wildcats led 6-0.

Then just 29 seconds later, NMU scored again. Huntsville turned the puck over at center ice and it was collected by Diamantoni, who passed it to a charging Payne. The senior beat Sinclair five-hole to give Northern its seventh and final goal of the night.

Rockwood said that it was emphasized in between periods that Northern needs to keep the pressure on the Chargers defense.

“It’s easy to kind of think you have them, but the difference between great teams and good teams is you really put the teams away,” he said. “I think we did that pretty well. We held them to 14 shots and I thought it was a really good, complete game.”

The Chargers did get a goal with 1:02 left, coming on a power-play one-timer by Brandon Parker to break up the shutout, but the celebration was a short one.

The Wildcats have a chance to sweep the series at 7 p.m. today at the BEC.

“It’s going to be the toughest game of the year when you’re trying to end somebody’s season,” Potulny said. “They’re going to be full snarl and vinegar.

“If you look across college hockey, when somebody hangs a crooked number (on the scoreboard), the next game is a one-goal game, maybe a two-goal game with an empty netter.

“I expect a really hard-fought game and it’s that number (goals given up) for us. We have to keep that number at two or under and when we do, we have success.”

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