A lot on the line: Northern Michigan University enters crucial hockey series at Lake Superior State

Northern Michigan University’s Griffin Loughran, left, is checked by Bemidji State’s Charlie Combs while skating toward the Beavers’ net with the puck in the third period of their WCHA game on Saturday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

This weekend: NMU at Lake Superior State, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Radio: WUPT The Point 100.3 FM


MARQUETTE — There’s a lot on the line this weekend for the Northern Michigan University hockey team.

First off, it’s a chance for the Wildcats to get back on track as they’ve lost four straight games, each to the two teams ahead of them in the WCHA standings, Minnesota State-Mankato and Bemidji State. NMU (16-12-4, 14-9-1 WCHA) was also shut out twice in those four contests.

Second, positioning in the standings is also at stake. At one point, home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs seemed like a sure thing, but now, that’s become more of a question mark.

Northern is in third place, but only one point ahead of Alaska-Fairbanks and three ahead of fifth-place Michigan Tech. A sweep could potentially lock up home ice for the ‘Cats and NMU head coach Grant Potulny insisted that his team would be at home in the first round at Tuesday’s press conference.

“We will be at home the first round of the playoff series,” he said firmly.

However, that sweep won’t come easy as the Wildcats will face Lake Superior State (10-20-4, 8-12-4) with the Cappo Cup also up for grabs. So that’s three things that are on the line for Northern and Potulny said that the Wildcats need to be prepared for a Lakers team that may have struggled this year, but is more than capable of pulling off a surprise or two.

“We’re playing for a trophy,” he said. “The trophy is out of the locker room right now because we don’t own it. It’s up for grabs this week. When the year started, they (the Lakers) were picked to finish fourth, I think. They might’ve been picked to finish ahead of us. Just for whatever reason, it didn’t go well for them.

“But watching them on video, you just have a hard time kind of understanding why they were struggling so much, and they’ve kind of righted the ship. In the last eight games, they’ve only lost twice. Their goalie (Mareks Mitens) is playing fantastic. He’s a 1.64 (goals-against average) and a .930 (saves percentage).

“They’re averaging 30 shots a night, their penalty kill is 94 percent. Those are facts. Stats are facts, they’re not my opinion. Everything tells you that they’re playing the best hockey of the year and they have a chance to move in the standings, too. They’re trying to move as high as they can and they have a chance to, I believe, to solidify for sure playoff position this weekend. So both teams are playing for a lot.”

The Lakers trail the Wildcats heavily in offense, but are pretty equal on the defensive end, and are actually better than NMU on the penalty kill (35th in the nation to 44th). Potulny said special teams will be essential for Northern to have success not only this weekend, but in the postseason.

“I don’t know how it can’t be,” he said. “Special teams and keeping the puck out of our net. We’ve scored all year with the exception of the last three games. You take those out and we’ve scored all year. Even to start the year, I didn’t feel we were going to (be able to keep scoring) and you can’t. You can’t score five goals a night. You’re just not going to be able to. You can’t average four a night.

“We’re averaging over three, which is incredible. You average 3.25 or whatever we have, you should be right where you need to be. The problem is keeping it out and whether that’s 5-on-5 play or whether that’s penalty kill, those things got to improve.

“The power play has to get better and I gave the guys a homework assignment (Tuesday). I said get with your unit and talks amongst each other on how you’re going to have success. You all know what to do. We work on it more than anybody in the country. Every day. Before practice, during practice, video. I think talking to each other is more powerful than being directed by me.

“Hopefully, that helps spur, nothing that’s going to be any different than the things I say to them, but it’s coming from within their own group. That obviously (has) got more impact than coming from a coach.”

NMU is on a bad slide, but this isn’t the first time that the Wildcats have gone on one this year. They lost four in a row in November after a hot start, but Northern eventually fought its way out of it. Potulny said the only way for his team to get out of its current skid is to do what it did before and that’s keep working.

“It feels very similar,” he said. “The thing that got us into the slide was not respecting the game enough to work to the level required during practice. Because you all want to work hard in a game. Everybody wants to work hard in a game and everybody wants to have success.

“It’s the day-to-day grind of practice that prepares you for the weekend and we weren’t respecting the game enough to do that and it’s the danger when you’re on a run. You’re on a run and you lose one time in seven games. You lose two times in 13 games. So you’re having all this success.

“It’s human nature for an athlete when the coach is telling you, ‘Hey, I’m not sure I like this.’ ‘I’m not sure I like that’ to kind of be like ‘What’s he talking about? We’re 9-2-1.’

“But sometimes we see things that athletes don’t see on a day-to-day basis and the way we got out of it before was working and that’s the only way to get out of it now.”

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