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Wildcats not special on Saturday

No. 19 NMU struggles on power play, penalty kill in loss to No. 16 Bemidji State

MARQUETTE — Friday night’s loss to No. 16 Bemidji State was definitely one for the No. 19 Northern Michigan University hockey team to put behind it.

For the first few minutes of their rematch with the Beavers Saturday, the Wildcats looked like they had put it behind them as they got on the scoreboard just a few minutes into the opening period. However, NMU’s struggles on special teams continued as it surrendered two power play goals and went 0 for 4 on its power play opportunities as Bemidji beat the Wildcats 5-1 and completed the series sweep.

The loss officially ended any hope of Northern (16-12-4, 14-9-1-1) finishing any higher than third in the WCHA standings, while the second place Beavers (18-8-4, 18-4-2-1) stayed alive in their quest to catch Minnesota State and earn the MacNaughton Cup.

“Penalties for us is causing major problems,” NMU head coach Grant Potulny said. “It’s been an issue all year. You talk about it until you’re red in the face and you skate about it. You call them (penalties) in practice and you do all those things and you get away with it early because the penalty kill was kind of saving you. The penalty kill doing the same job the power play is doing, very poor. And I don’t know any other way to work on it. We’ve worked on it every way under the sun and it’s the same result. And some of that is being prepared. Like how do you practice? Push the puck behind the net. How do you practice on the power play? Catch a pass. That’s the hard part, is that we’re in one of those funks right now.”

When asked about the issues on special teams, seniors Darien Craighead and Phil Beaulieu said it comes down to preparedness.

“I just think we have to stay out of the box, including myself, and we’ve got to capitalize on our power play chances,” Craighead said. “And kill those penalties off because that gains momentum for the team and it’s on the guys that are on those units. We’re well-prepared for what they’re doing every week and we just didn’t get the job done.”

“We’re well-prepared by the coaches,” Beaulieu added. “They do a great job and it comes down to us as a team. Coming together and being prepared ourselves individually. I just think we’re lacking a little bit in that department. Grant said in the locker room that you just can’t flip a switch at game time. It starts with practice and that bleeds into the weekend. So it’s definitely something we need to tighten up. Special teams is a big part of the game and if we can win that, that’s huge. So that’s a big step we’re going to be looking at going forward.”

Going into Saturday, Northern had been shut out in its last two games, but Craighead ended that drought when he got his 12th goal of the season at the 4:34 mark. Craighead got a pass in the low slot from behind the net from Griffin Loughran and one-timed the puck past Beavers goalie Zach Driscoll. The lead didn’t last long though as Bemidji struck back on its first power play of the game. With Northern’s Mason Palmer in the box for interference, Beavers defenseman Tommy Muck fired a slap shot past Wildcats goalie John Hawthorne to tie the game at 1-1.

Later in the period with the two teams playing 4 on 4, Hawthorne was pulled for goalie Nolan Kent in a strange move. Kent was tested not long after taking over in net as he was forced to make saves on shots from Bemidji’s Charlie Combs and Adam Brady. The score stayed at 1-1 going into the second period,

When asked why he pulled Hawthorne, Potulny simply said he didn’t think the freshman was tracking the puck well, which is vital for a goaltender.

“I didn’t think John was seeing the puck,” he said. “Again, because there’s no room for error for us. There was one that went off the crossbar and right before our first penalty, there was a point shot that I thought he had trouble handling. And when he’s on, it goes right in the corner. I almost took him out after the goal. Actually, I had thought about it and I kept him in because I wanted to try and let him come out of it and then there was a shot from the point that he saved, but he didn’t know where it was. That was why I took him out.”

NMU had an early chance to take the lead in the second, but Andre Ghantous’ backhand shot was denied by Driscoll with around 18:30 left. Not long after that, the Beavers took the lead when Owen Sillinger picked off a pass in the Bemidji defensive zone and passed it up to Alex Ierullo. After skating toward the left post, Ierullo turned around and sent the puck back to a trailing Brad Johnson, who one-timed the puck past Kent’s blocker to put the Beavers up 2-1.

The Wildcats had a golden opportunity to tie the game with 10 minutes left in the period as forward Ty Readman got a pass near center ice, rushed into the Bemidji zone and fed a cross-ice pass to Craighead. However, Driscoll made a sprawling save by the left post to rob Craighead of a sure goal. Northern got a couple more decent chances during a scrum in front of the Beavers net in the closing seconds of the period, but Driscoll kept both shots out of the net.

Needing a spark to get back into the game, NMU started swarming in front of Driscoll at the start of the third period, but again, couldn’t get the puck past the junior. Then with less than 16 minutes to play, Bemidji got fire again. With Ghantous in the box on a boarding call, Brady snapped a shot that rang off the right post and past Kent to pad the Beavers’ advantage to 3-1.

“Here’s the thing,” Potulny said. “When you play good teams, there’s very little room for error. The first goal they got was a power play goal. Disappointed that it went in and it was from right from the top. But if you can conversely look at the things you can do to prevent that, you could’ve blocked it. Goal number two, I thought multiple times tonight, we had opportunities. We had quick 2-on-1s, quick 3-on-2s where if we were skating, you’d open up some ice. We weren’t skating and we turned it over and they had a 2-on-1. Goal three, we win a faceoff on a penalty kill and the D on the wall, his singular job is just to skate three feet and push it behind the net to the wing and then we clear it out. We get beat to it, so very little room for error. Then we didn’t get any to go by him (Driscoll). When you have chances, like Darien’s chance (in the second period) and their goalie is playing like that, you really don’t have room for error.”

Just when Northern looked down and out though, it caught a break as Ierullo was handed a five-minute major and a game misconduct for checking from behind. However, the Wildcats couldn’t cash in as Driscoll made two nice saves on shots by Vincent de Mey. Bemidji then closed out the win with empty net tallies by Sillinger and Combs.

The Wildcats head to rival Lake Superior State next weekend.

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