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Northern Michigan University Wildcat hockey team needs sweep to catch up to Bemidji State in WCHA

Ferris State goalie Roni Salmenkangas, right, makes a pad save on a redirected shot by Northern Michigan University’s Luke Voltin in the third period of their WCHA game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Feb. 1. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — Every series is an important one for the Northern Michigan University hockey team with the regular season winding down.

This weekend might be bigger than the rest, though, as the No. 19 Wildcats host No. 16 Bemidji State. After getting swept by No. 3 and WCHA leader Minnesota State-Mankato, NMU (16-10-4, 14-7-1 WCHA) needs to bounce back quickly if it has any hopes of getting the second seed in the WCHA playoffs.

The third-place ‘Cats trail Bemidji (16-8-4, 16-4-2) by seven points and anything short of a sweep might just about kill any hopes of finishing higher than third.

Not only that, but fourth-place Alaska-Fairbanks only trails Northern by four points. So NMU really can’t afford to slip up at home.

When asked if this weekend was the biggest series of the regular season, Northern head coach Grant Potulny nodded in agreement.

“I would say so, yeah,” he said Tuesday. “Even going into the second half, you look at the standings, and we went on a bit of a run. And you’re watching what they’re doing and you’re thinking ‘They’ve got a tough schedule coming up.’

“The first half of the year, they were playing teams that just happened to be at the bottom of the standings and then they run into (Michigan) Tech and BG (Bowling Green State) and Mankato. From afar, you’re thinking they might give one up and put you in a chance to be able to catch them this weekend, and they’ve just kept winning.

“Now with where we’re at in the standings, and where we’re at with the schedule, for us to finish second, we have to have a huge weekend.”

Bemidji may be the surprise of the WCHA as this isn’t their typical squad. Previously, The Beavers were known for being strong defensively, but this season, they’re good at both ends of the rink.

In the national rankings, Bemidji is just three spots below NMU in team offense (ninth vs. 12th), but is higher than the Wildcats in the other three major categories — defense, power play and penalty kill.

Just like Northern, the Beavers have been hot since the holiday break, losing only once — to Mankato on the road — and are coming off a sweep of Bowling Green. If there’s one thing in the Wildcats’ favor this weekend, it’s that Bemidji has struggled on the road, going 6-6-1 there compared to 10-1-3 at home.

“They’re the best structure-based team for sure in our league and the top two or three in college hockey,” Potulny said. “Their sticks are on the rink, they’re never out of position. Very well coached defensively, a disciplined team.

“The reason they’re better this year than they have been in the past is that they’re generating more offense. They’re scoring more on the power play. They’re scoring more off the rush.

“So typical Bemidji teams, if you could get to three (goals), you felt like you were OK. This year’s team has been scoring. Their power play has done a nice job and they’ve scored early. So now they get up on you and with the addition of (goalie Zach) Driscoll, who’s having a great year, even if you get by them, it’s hard to score.”

Last weekend was almost as important as this week when the Wildcats were swept at Mankato. Even a split with the Mavericks could’ve been a boost for NMU in the important Pairwise rankings.

However, Northern was leaky on defense Friday when it got blown out 7-3. The Wildcats rebounded Saturday, holding the potent MSU offense to just one goal. But the Wildcats couldn’t get on the scoreboard and were dealt the sweep. Potulny said his team can’t dwell on it, though, and need to prepare for a tough battle with Bemidji.

“We were off Friday and actually, I don’t even think they played very well,” he said. “So Saturday, I thought both teams were way better.

“In those games, usually there’s five to six, maybe seven scoring chances a period. We, for the game, had seven and they, for the game, had six. Grade A scoring chances, we had four and they had three. They scored on theirs, we didn’t get any puck luck on ours.

“But all that being said, the penalty kill did a great job. They killed off a five-minute major. We had a chance with the power play at the end of the game and we got a good look, we just didn’t score.

“So now we’re in a spot where we’ve got no room for error. And it doesn’t get any easier this weekend. The only difference is we get a chance to do it at home.”

Puck drop is 7 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday at the Berry Events Center.

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

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