Heading down south: Northern Michigan University hockey team tries to end losing skid at Alabama-Huntsville this weekend

Northern Michigan University forward A.J. Vanderbeck, second from right, looks to pass the puck to teammate Alex Frye, right, in the Wildcats' defensive zone as Minnesota State's Jack McNeely, second from left, and Julian Napravnik try to apply pressure during the first period of their WCHA game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Jan. 2. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

“If it’s not working and you continue to try to do it over and over and over again, the same thing, that’s the definition of insanity. So we’ve got to change something.” — Grant Potulny, NMU head hockey coach, on some of the troubles with the Wildcats’ goaltending


MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University hockey team is at a crossroads.

The Wildcats have lost six straight and are about to face a team on the road that has been a thorn in their side for the last few years in Alabama-Huntsville.

NMU is coming off its third straight sweep, last weekend at now-No. 5 Bowling Green State. Not surprisingly, head coach Grant Potulny isn’t pleased with how things are going.

Northern Michigan University forwards Vincent de Mey, left, and Connor Marritt, right, battle Minnesota State's Riese Zmolek for the puck along the boards in the Wildcats' offensive zone during the first period of their WCHA game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Jan. 2. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

In a Zoom interview Monday, Potulny singled out goaltending as the No. 1 cause of the sweep by the Falcons while also talking about other factors.

Typical starting netminder Nolan Kent was out last weekend and Northern (2-8, 0-2 WCHA) was forced to switch to backups Connor Ryckman and John Haw-thorne, neither of whom was particularly effective as they gave up a 11 goals over the two games.

“You guys know I’m honest to a fault,” Potulny said. “On this particular instance, on Friday night, the bottom line is we need better goaltending. Our team is .865 (save percentage), and essentially over the course of three games, there’s some programs that are .965.

“We’re giving up 10 more goals on average than they are. The stats from Friday, every single stat says we should’ve won the game. Outchanced them 23-16, killed them in the faceoff dot 36-23, outshot them 37-33, won the special teams battle.

“Very little turnovers, outhit them, outblocked them and you lose the game. You can’t start the game down 3-0 continually.

“So then Saturday rolls around, and again for two periods we’re outplaying them, and at one point in the second period the scoring chances are 7-0 in the second period. They were very close in the first. The game is 3-2, we just score on the power play.

“We’re coming, we’re coming, we’re coming. When they score their first goal in that period, the scoring chances were 10-3.

“In the third period, they outplayed us for sure. They deserved to win the game on Saturday. They outplayed us in the third. But we’ve got a couple guys scoring.

“The hope is that we’ll have a defenseman this week that he could help with a little bit of depth on the blue line.

“We’ve got the leading scorer in the country who’s not really played for us. Andre (Ghantous) is hoping to play this week. That’d be a big boost.

“There’s probably, to be honest, the last three games we’ve played, we haven’t won one of them, but we’ve by far played the best that we’ve played all year and we’re in a place where we have to, No. 1, our goaltending, it’s got to get better, and No. 2, we’ve gotta start to score again.”

When asked who would be in net this weekend against the Chargers, Potulny wasn’t sure, but said if Kent is healthy, it’ll be him as he’s now “the most capable player.” However, if he’s not ready, it could be Ryckman, Hawthorne or even fourth backup John Roberts.

“We’re at a point that even going back to last year, in the last 20 games, we’re .855,” Potulny said of the Wildcats’ goalie save percentage. “That would be as an individual, you’d be last in college hockey. As a group of goalies you can’t be there, and we’re at a point where we’re going to continue to try to find a solution.

“Again, if Nolan’s healthy, Nolan’s gonna play. He’s had the most consistency out of anybody, but yeah, you know what, if it’s not working and you continue to try to do it over and over and over again, the same thing, that’s the definition of insanity. So we’ve got to change something.”

Change will be important as this year’s Chargers team (2-5-1, 2-2) will be different from the last few. To start, Lance West has taken over as head coach and despite Huntsville’s record, it has frustrated its opponents this year.

Overall, NMU has a 19-8-4 record vs. UAH, though the teams split in their most recent series in Huntsville in November 2019.

This is a key series for the Wildcats as the remainder of the season is all conference games, so if they want to make up ground in the standings, a sweep of the Chargers would be a good start.

“New coach, so they’re going to play a little differently,” Potulny said. “The good of all this bad and ugly is that we’ve only played two conference games that really have affected us at all, and to be honest the team that we played, we might’ve played great and they might’ve beat us twice.

“So we have to park all of this stuff that’s happened, because really none of it matters. You hate to say it because every game does matter, but this year, it doesn’t.

“We have a chance to get back in the league again. Now more than ever, this year it’s going to be as important as you can to finish as high as you can, because really the only thing that matters is what happens at the end of the year this season.

“So (we) got to start earning some more breaks and got to get that winning feeling again. Hey, losing is contagious, but so is winning. We’ve got to continue to try to do some things to help us score.

“Our effort has been sufficiently high the last three games and I told the team when you have to coach effort, you can’t coach the team. So now, you can coach the team and you’re not spending all day at practice coaching effort.

“Now hopefully we can move some players to different spots on the rink. Like I said, get a little bit healthier and start moving forward with some wins.”

The puck drops at 8:07 p.m. EST both Friday and Saturday. The games will be broadcast on WUPT The Point 100.3 FM, along with online at www.rrnsports.com. Video is available at http://share.flosports.tv/SHI1 and live statistics at https://uahchargers.com/sidearmstats/mhockey/summary.

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


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