Already looking ahead
NMU icers move on from disappointing end to season
Two weeks ago, the Wildcats’ season came to an end in a triple-overtime loss to rival Michigan Tech on the ice of the Berry Events Center to open the WCHA playoffs.
The defeat came after a month-long slide in February that almost caused them to lose out on home ice in the first round of the tournament. After losing six of seven games, on the last night of the regular season NMU at least accomplished that last goal.
It was clear that the playoff loss was still on NMU head coach Grant Potulny’s mind when he spoke in his final press conference of the season three days later.
“I’ve felt the way I’ve felt one other time in my career as a coach,” he said. “It was after losing the national championship (as an assistant coach at Minnesota in 2014). But I felt that same way that night. Three days later, I’ve never been more determined or focused on anything as I am right now.
“One of my mentors, (former NMU head) Coach (Rick) Comley, said sometimes it takes a frustrating loss to get you in the right place. And I’m evaluating everything. Everybody, everything, every situation, how I handled it. I’m going to get inside and out of this program because it doesn’t sit well with me right now.”
Another thing that didn’t sit right with Potulny this season was penalties. The Wildcats had the top two players in penalty minutes in all of NCAA Division I as Hank Sorensen (101) and Griffin Loughran (93) combined for an eye-popping 194 and Northern’s kill unit was pushed to the max.
Loughran will even have to sit out next season’s opener thanks to a one-game suspension handed out by the WCHA due to a penalty in the final-game loss to the Huskies. However, it’s ultimately the last month of the year that lingers in Potulny’s head.
“Penalties during the course of the year, yes,” he said. “And it was a couple of the same culprits. More for me was if you look at the season, going into the year, you have to replace four senior D (defensemen), your first line, the (WCHA) goalie of the year (Atte Tolvanen), the player of the year (Troy Loggins), you have all kinds of unknowns.
“Did I have any idea where we were going to finish? No. I thought we would be able to get a home ice spot. And then the way we finished is what bothers me the most. Injuries were for sure. We didn’t have an extra healthy player.
“So when you don’t have anybody else you can play, your ability to control ice time, which is the only currency you have, is gone. So that played a factor in it, but the finish of the year is what I remember and that’s what sits with me right now.”
The ending was disappointing, but Potulny still found some positives in the season and was impressed with his transfers and freshmen.
“I thought obviously when you have the conference leading scorer (Loughran), somebody who you expected would be a better player, I’d be lying if I said I thought he’d have 23 (goals),” he said. “I thought he could get 15. Vinny (de Mey) scored about what I thought he would. I thought they’d be a little more consistent, but when the year started, how he looked, I thought he’d be there.
“I thought Ben (Newhouse) was fantastic. At times, for a lot of times, he was the guy who played the most minutes for us. Played in every situation and was one of our best players. You always want to believe that. You want to believe what you see in practice, but when he’s never played for you, it’s hard to know.
“Just like (A.J.) Vanderbeck, you want to believe it, but until he played a game, you just don’t know. I thought both of those guys had very good years. A.J.’s, his year was eight games. That injury hurt us.
“I thought the freshman ‘D,’ I thought all got much better throughout the course of the year. They’re going to be big pieces going forward.
“Andre (Ghantous) had a good freshman year. If you look at the last time we had an 11-goal scorer as a freshman, it was awhile ago. To put it in perspective, Griff(in Loughran) had six last year.
“Do I think Andre is going to score 23? I don’t know. I hope he can get to 15, just like I hoped Griff could. Anything over that is great.
“So there was players that had good years. I don’t think we had anybody that had a great year. I thought to a certain point, Griff was playing like the best player in the conference.
“He was very injury-riddled the back half of the year. He was wearing a walking boot, barely practicing. So that obviously affected him down the stretch. But we’ve got a lot coming back.
“There’s no certainties in sports at all. All you can go by is the history of what your players have done. Coming into this year, we returned 54 goals. It’s tough. Going into next year, we return 90 and that number is probably over 100 if A.J. plays. So you’re looking at 100 goals coming back. Lots of teams score 100 goals on a year and we’re bringing that back.
“All the freshmen ‘D’ will be better. We have lots of guys play important minutes in important roles this year that will be back. You’re only losing three players. Now they’re valuable players, no doubt. But that’s a big difference from losing 10. So there’s a lot of good things going on.”
The Wildcats will also return both of their goalies that played this year, Nolan Kent and John Hawthorne. Even though they both opened the year with very little collegiate experience, Potulny felt that they showed enough that they could be successful next year.
“I thought at times this year, they proved that they can be good goalies,” he said. “But that position, any position, there’s facts and stats and math. All those things, they don’t lie. There’s no opinion in that.
“I think the facts are because of the stats, that those guys have to have great summers. They have to come back better than they were this year.
“Now in fairness to both of them, John is a freshman and Nolan was effectively a freshman because he didn’t even have to go through the mental rigors of ‘I might play’ last year. Maybe don’t play the games, but ‘I might play, I might play, I might play.’ He never had to do that because Atte was gonna play every game. So he was a freshman, if he qualified for that, if he was a true freshman, you’d probably say pretty good. So hopefully, they can build off that.
“We do have the addition of Connor Ryckman. Connor was with us all year. He couldn’t play, so Connor’s going to be battling for that spot also next year.”
Speaking of battling, Potulny ended his press conference saying that his squad is not going to let up and that the year didn’t end for them with a loss to MTU.
“We are not taking time off,” he said. “In my opinion, the hockey season is not over. We might be done playing, but it’s not over. So there’s work that needs to be done. There’s areas that I’ve got to make us tougher in and we’re going to work.
“It’s not spring break. It’s not time off. It is disappointment with how it finished.
“I mentioned (on March 9) I’m as focused as I’ve ever been on getting this thing right, because the community support in this town, and I shouldn’t even say community, the support for our program from the president to the board of trustees to the athletic director to everybody in this community. What they do to support our program, I’m devastated that we’re done for them because they have given us all of their effort and all of their energy and they’re both feet in with us.
“So we are not going to let them down again. I will not let them down. We will not take a break. We will not take our foot off the gas. I understand that we lost all those people. I understand we probably overachieved for what the reality of 15 freshman and sophomores are.
“To me, that doesn’t matter. This is an area where you’re expected to win and we didn’t do that enough. That falls directly on my shoulders and I’m going to flip over every rock to fix that.”
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.