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Wildcats ready for rematch on rink

No. 16 NMU looks to continue hot start against St. Cloud State

Northern Michigan's Garrett Klee in action against Alabama's Brandon Salerno in Friday nights game Nov. 1st 2019 at The Berry Events Center. (Journal photo by Trinity Carey)

MARQUETTE — Last year’s series against St. Cloud State was a real eye-opener for the Northern Michigan University hockey team.

The now-No. 16 Wildcats came to Minnesota last October as a potential favorite to win the WCHA, but they were a step behind the Huskies all weekend, getting outscored 9-1. That SCSU team went on to make the NCAA Tournament, and getting swept badly on the road is something that will probably be in the back of NMU’s veterans’ minds as the Huskies come to the Upper Peninsula this weekend.

This year’s Huskies team is different from last year though. SCSU fell out of the national rankings for the first time since March 2017, and is 1-2-3 to start the season. Still, that doesn’t mean the Wildcats will be overlooking the Huskies as All-American defenseman Jack Ahcan is back and forward Sam Hentges is off to a great start with 11 points.

“I don’t care what their record says,” NMU head coach Grant Potulny said Tuesday. “I just watched them and they got two kids that are playing that look like (NHL) first round picks. One has been an All-American a couple times and the other one is playing like one. They’re good. Their record, the tape doesn’t lie there. They’re gonna be good and we’re going to have to play well if we’re going to have success.”

While the Huskies may be a little slow out of the gates, Northern is off to a roaring start (6-1-1, 4-0 WCHA). The Wildcats haven’t lost since their season opener and they’ve piled up a few WCHA weekly awards with forward Vincent de Mey getting the most recent one, WCHA Forward of the Month on Tuesday.

NMU is also eighth in the nation in team offense and is coming off a strong weekend with a sweep of Alabama-Huntsville. Northern rallied in the second period Friday to get a 5-3 win and then controlled play throughout the game Saturday to finish the series with a 4-2 victory.

“Probably offensively, that’s the best we’ve been in the half-court,” Potulny said. “We score a lot off the rush and that’s good. But you’ve got to be able to wear people out. I thought we were good in the offensive end of the game. We’re still struggling with shortening the rush and picking up people with speed. It’s an area of concern and it’s an area for one, the betterment of our own team, but two, for our opponent this weekend. We’ve got to get that cleaned up by Friday.”

Two things that seemed to be cleaned up last weekend were the Wildcats’ power play and penalty kill. Those will be key if Northern is going to take two games from the Huskies.

“I think one of the power play units still has some work to do,” Potulny said. “You get lulled with talented players trying to pass the puck at the net. If you watch the NHL, all the teams do is just pound the puck. They recover it, pound it, recover it and pound it, deflect it and get a rebound and score a goal. Then maybe, by the third period, after they’ve been shooting and shooting, they might seam somebody for a goal. I think that’s what the de Mey unit does. They get it over and they just rip pucks. Whether it’s Hank (Sorensen) or Vinny or whoever, they make plays down low. We’ve got to get the other unit doing that. That’ll be important. The penalty kill is better. I think it’s going to be really tested this weekend with the stick skill of St. Cloud with their offensive moxie. We’re going to have to be sharper than we’ve been at any point in the last four games.”

Potulny is also well-aware of how important this series is as a sweep of SCSU could be very beneficial for the Wildcats when it comes to the all-important Pairwise rankings at the end of the season.

“I think when you look at the history of the last couple of years, we’ve won 20 games each year in a row, but sometimes, it’s the ones that you don’t win that cost you,” he said. “The nonconference (games) have hurt us. Obviously, we’ve played tough opponents and that’s going to affect it. This season, we’ve put ourselves in a good start nonconference. We’ve got four games left and it’s gonna affect whether you’re in or out (of the NCAA Tournament). It’s gonna affect if you’re in, where you’re in. It’s a real challenge early in the year, especially for both teams because it matters so much at the end.

“The hard thing is as a team, and it’s not just for us, every team gets better as the year goes. The games that you play now affect what happens at the end of the year more than some games in February affect it. We have to be sharp and we have to play well and we have to give ourselves a chance to win the game. By doing that is being mentally engaged. We’ve been mentally engaged Saturdays much better than Fridays and it’s going to take both nights this weekend to have any success against this team.”

The puck drops at 7 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. EST Saturday at the Berry Events Center.

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