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Needing to defend better

After winless weekend, NMU faces Alaska-Fairbanks

MARQUETTE — The old cliche says that defense wins championships.

To pull off that goal, the Northern Michigan University hockey team will have to be better in that facet of the game.

Offense is definitely not an issue as the No. 18-ranked Wildcats are firing in nearly four goals — 3.90 to be exact — per game, placing them eighth in the nation, along with seventh on the power play.

However, they’ve struggled to keep the puck out of their own net, giving up eight goals to St. Cloud State at home last weekend, while falling behind and being forced to rally both nights.

NMU (6-2-2, 4-0 WCHA) needed a 5-on-3, five-minute power play just to tie the Huskies on Friday and a third-period surge to force overtime before losing Saturday.

It’s still early in the season, so defense hasn’t become a major problem yet, but it’s become a concern for Northern head coach Grant Potulny.

“I go back even when I was a player, and as an athlete, you evaluate your performance on, No. 1, did you win or lose the game, and No. 2, what’s my individual success within that game,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve been on teams where we were really good and I’ve coached teams that have been really good.

“Sometimes when the coach is telling you things and you’re winning, it doesn’t resonate as well as it does when you have disappointment. That’s the first part of it.

“The second part of it is the offensive side of most sports, mine in particular, is done in recruiting. You don’t turn a two-goal scorer into a 20-goal scorer. You find those guys in recruiting.

“Areas that you can improve as a coach is the defensive part of your game and that’s the good part. But we do have to get that side of the game figured out. Part of that, I think, is practice.

“The offensive categories, if you look at our team, you want to be in the top 20. In all offensive categories, we’re in the top seven or six, or in power play goals four. Things like that. But we practice those things with purpose.

“When we get to the other side of the puck, sometimes I feel like you might get 85 percent of the 100 percent effort. Now I think we have their attention, so hopefully, we get 100 percent on that side of the puck and we can affect the outcomes of the game with some coaching.”

Defense may be a struggle now, but on the plus side, this weekend’s opponent, Alaska-Fairbanks, is not clicking with its offense.

The Nanooks (6-6, 4-2) are tied for 52nd nationally in team offense and 55th on the power play, which is perfect this week for the Wildcats if they’re looking to improve in their own end.

However, even though Alaska swept Michigan Tech in Houghton and shut out now-No. 8 Penn State on the road after getting lit up 7-0 the night before, Potulny isn’t thinking about the Nanooks. Instead, he’s focusing on his own squad and the end of the season.

“No disrespect to them at all, but I don’t care who we’re playing this weekend,” he said. “I wouldn’t care if it was Denver, who’s No. 1 (in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll, second in the USCHO poll), or (Minnesota State) Mankato, who is tied for No. 1 (USA Today/USA Magazine), or whoever No. 60 in the PairWise is (Canisius).

“This week is about us. It’s about cleaning up those areas that we’ve talked about continually for the last six games. It’s about getting back to the level where here’s us and this is how the Wildcats are going to play every night.

“If you beat us and you get over that bar, good for you. We’ve just been too inconsistent. So if we can play at this level that we’re pleased with and our opponent this week, Alaska, can get over that bar, good for them.

“They’ve shown that they can. They’ve beat Penn State, they beat Arizona State, they swept Tech. So they’re obviously a much-improved team. That’s why I said no disrespect to them at all. They’re much improved from what they’ve been. They’re a factor nationally now, but we have to worry about us right now.

“This is just the week it happens to be that opponent. No matter who we’re playing, I’d give you the same answer based on what we were doing. You’re coaching for the end of the year. We’re not coaching for Friday night and we’ve got to fix these things because if you don’t, the things that continuously pop up are going to break your heart at the end, and we’ve got to fix them.”

Things were kind of fixed on Saturday night as even though it took the Wildcats until the second period to start rolling, they did look better overall against the Huskies. Potulny said that Friday shook his team up and things changed the following night.

“Friday was probably a wakeup call,” he said. “I think we weren’t nearly competitive enough. We didn’t start on time. You got to understand the situation of every team, too. They were a little bit of a wounded animal. We talked about how I figured their coach (Brett Larson) was going to be ornery and he definitely was and their players played like it.

“I think we missed an opportunity there to get into the series and it almost took us till Friday night when we got the power plays to get into the series.

“Even though we were down in Game 2, we played a much better game. I think they were opportunistic on some opportunities. We hit three pipes. Yes, we had to score three in the third to get it to overtime, and score four goals, but I thought we played much better Saturday.”

The Wildcats face off against the Nanooks at 7 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday.

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