After battling No. 1 Cornell, No. 15 Northern Michigan University hockey team heads to Alaska

Northern Michigan University’s Griffin Loughran, center, takes a shot on Alaska-Fairbanks’ goalie Anton Martinsson during their Nov. 15 game at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal file photo by Amy Grigas)

This weekend: NMU at Alaska-Fairbanks, 11 p.m. EST today, 9 p.m. Saturday; Radio: WUPT 100.3 FM The Point


MARQUETTE — After a long road trip east last weekend, the Northern Michigan University hockey team is heading out even further from home this weekend.

The Wildcats went to New York state to face No. 1 Cornell and came out with a tie and a loss, which helped them move up in the national rankings from No. 17 to No. 15. NMU (13-8-3, 11-5 WCHA) didn’t get much of a chance to reflect on that series, though, as it now goes up to the Last Frontier to face Alaska-Fairbanks.

Northern tangled with the Nanooks (13-12-1, 11-8-1) at home in mid-November, which was the start of a downward trend for the Wildcats. They beat Alaska Friday night, but fell behind early Saturday and were dealt a loss. NMU then lost three straight games after that before splitting at previously winless Alabama-Huntsville.

This weekend’s series is even more important as the Nanooks are one point ahead of Northern in the WCHA standings as a Wildcats’ sweep would vault them into third place as they try to clinch home ice in the playoffs.

“I think probably the first time we played them, ‘surprise’ is the wrong word, but going into the year, nobody had them picked to be a team competing for home ice,” NMU head coach Grant Potulny said Tuesday. “They’ve done a great job. They compete hard, they’re stingy. Their last four games, they’ve only given up four goals. They’re 3-0-1, they’re 10-2 when they score first, their goalies are playing good.

“We can’t have a feeling-out process. We can’t have a ‘We’re tired because we’re in Alaska.’ These are important points, and as of today in the standings, they’re ahead of us. And we have to come back (home) with them in the rearview mirror and keep them there.”

Alaska just completed a road sweep of Ferris State, but the Nanooks struggle badly offensively, sitting 51st nationally in team offense and 57th on the power play. That bodes well for the Wildcats as they’re third in the country in penalty minutes.

To be successful against the Nanooks and pass them in the standings, though, Northern has to get its power play going, which won’t be easy against a defensively sound team like Alaska. When asked why the Wildcats have had such difficulty in that area, Potulny says there’s multiple factors.

“We have been moving people in and out because of new additions,” he said. “I think that might be part of it. Cornell does a nice job. That might be a part of it.

“But sometimes on a power play, it’s human nature to relax a little bit because you think ‘OK, I’ve got a little more time and I want to make sure I make the right, perfect play.’ I think that’s crept into us a little bit. Maybe we’re trying to pass the puck in the net more than we are just taking what the game gives us and trying to be a hockey player.

“This week, we’re going to make some more adjustments and try some different guys, but it has to get going because it’s been our Achilles heel lately.”

Basically, in a nutshell, this series in Alaska is a big opportunity in many ways for NMU as last week was one as well.

However, the Wildcats went winless against Cornell and that stings a little.

“Here’s what we talked about on Saturday,” Potulny said. “I brought us back to Nov. 6 of 2017. We played (Minnesota State) Mankato at home and it was early in my first kind of time here as a coach.

“We lost the game. Shots were even in the game, but we lost the game and I think they had an empty netter, and we lost it 2-0. As the guys walked into the rink on Saturday, I could hear them and I didn’t hear the disappointment in them. It seemed like ‘We played good.’

“You fast forward two years and you go on the road. And Mankato was good then, but they weren’t as good as they are now. You go on the road and you play the No. 1 team in the country and you tie. There was major disappointment in that game on Friday because we felt like we had that game won. Power play let us down all weekend, and then you go into Saturday and now you have an opportunity to have a great weekend. If you could find a way to win on Saturday, you can have a great weekend.

“Against a team that averages seven shots against in the first period, we had 17. Just couldn’t get more than one (goal) by him (Big Red goalie Matthew Galajda). They scored on their chances and we didn’t, but all the things that I was talking about when we were winning and not playing well that are going to get you, it was almost the reverse effect.

“All the things, all the statistical categories that we keep as coaches and what the eye test tells you, said we should’ve won. So you take some solace in that. I don’t want to undersell the fact that at the end of the day you play to win and we didn’t get that done.

“Over the last probably seven of our last eight games, I think we’ve done the things required to be successful. Hopefully, that’s a sign of things to come.”

The puck drops at 11 p.m. EST Friday and 9 p.m. Saturday in Fairbanks.

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