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Series of the month: Northern Michigan University Wildcats’ only December action is at home this weekend against nation’s No. 1 Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks

Alaska-Fairbanks’ Kyle Marino, left, traps Northern Michigan University’s Brandon Schultz against the boards behind the Nanooks’ net in the third period in their Nov. 16 game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — It’s the holiday season and hockey fans all over have lists of gifts that they hope to open at the end of the month.

The Northern Michigan University hockey team is also hoping for the perfect gift — a sweep this weekend at the Berry Events Center.

However, unlike their fans, the Wildcats (8-6-2, 6-4 WCHA) will have to earn their present and it definitely won’t be easy as they’ll be taking on the high-powered No. 1 team in the country, Minnesota State-Mankato.

To say the Mavericks (14-1-1, 9-1) are good is an understatement. They’re No.1 in the nation in team defense and No. 7 in team offense. MSU also is dominant on special teams as it is No. 1 on the power play and No. 2 on the penalty kill, so NMU is going to have its hands full in pretty much every phase of the game.

“When you watch them, you just reflect on different teams you played over time, whether it was St. Cloud (State) last year, or whether it was Boston College with (NHL forward Johnny) Gaudreau and that clan, or with North Dakota when they were loaded (in the mid-2000s),” Northern head coach Grant Potulny said Tuesday. “They had really good players and the players made you nervous.

“Mankato has really good players and they have unbelievable depth. They all play the same. They have no weakness. You play some teams that have really good players and you might have a plan to try to knock them off their game, but this is the best team in college hockey.

“They have the best players. Their players are better than ours. Their players are better than everybody else’s, too. They’re well-coached and there’s a reason they’re 14-1-1.

“They’ve only given up two goals twice all year. That’s it. So they’re for real. There’s no doubt about it. They’re a great team and they’re playing great.”

The last time the Wildcats faced Mankato, at home in January, it didn’t go well. NMU dropped the first game 3-2, then got thumped 8-2 the next night as the Mavericks completed the sweep.

However, Potulny said the team isn’t thinking about that because it’s a new year and a new squad.

“It was a tale of two games,” he said. “The first game we played outstanding, and probably in (former goalie) Atte (Tolvanen)’s career, that’s maybe one or two or three times where he didn’t see it.

“So Friday, you leave the game disappointed that you felt like you could’ve won that game and Saturday was one of those real stinkers. You have to move past that because it’s different players, different times and different things happen.”

Another thing that Northern needs to forget is its last series two weeks ago at Alabama-Huntsville. The Wildcats struggled badly against what was then a winless Huntsville team and all but handed the Chargers their first win of the season. NMU did bounce back, though, to earn a split, but it wasn’t exactly a great split.

“We’ve moved on,” Potulny said. “We played poorly on Friday. It’s gonna happen. To be honest, that’s probably the only game this year that I would say we played really poorly.”

This is the last series for the Wildcats before Christmas as they won’t return to action until Jan. 3-4 in Ohio at Bowling Green State. After the holidays, they’ll add depth to their lineup as forwards A.J. Vanderbeck and Brandon Schultz, who is transferring from Northeastern, will be eligible, as well as defenseman James Miller.

However, that’s a few weeks from now. Right now, NMU is focused on the Mavericks, who took two of the four WCHA weekly player awards this week with Dryden McKay getting Goaltender of the Week and Nathan Smith earning Rookie of the Week. McKay was also named National Goaltender of the Month for November, so Northern will have to generate offense on special teams.

“We have to score on the power play,” Potulny said. “If you look through the course of the year, I think sometimes power play numbers get misleading. Maybe we were five or six in the country and that was great, but I don’t care what the percentage is. I care when we need a goal, can we deliver?”

It’s going to be a tough series as Potulny and the Wildcats are well aware.

“Like I mentioned to the guys, there’s a fine line,” the coach said. “Whether it’s college hockey, junior hockey or the NHL. Boston has lost three games all year and they got beat by Ottawa (Monday) night. There’s just a fine line in sports. If you play well and you’re firing on all cylinders and you’re competing and you’re skating, you have a chance to beat anybody.”

The puck drops 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.

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