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Tough way to start: Northern Michigan University Wildcats hockey team to open league play by hosting defending WCHA champ Minnesota State-Mankato today, Sunday

Northern Michigan University’s Nolan Kent, right, makes a point-blank pad save on a shot by Alaska-Anchorage’s Alex Frye, center, as the Wildcats’ Philip Beaulieu defends in the third period on Jan. 11, 2020, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. With Anchorage suspending its program for this season, Frye has transferred to NMU and is now the newest Wildcat who could play this weekend. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — A new year, and technically, a new season begins for the Northern Michigan University hockey team this weekend.

Not only is 2021 beginning, but so does the Wildcats’ WCHA conference schedule as they host defending champion Minnesota State-Mankato (3-1-1) at the Berry Events Center. The Mavericks are currently ranked No. 5 in a pair of national polls, too.

NMU (2-2) is coming off a crazy 6-5 win over Ferris State Wednesday where it fell behind big early, rallied to tie the game, took the lead in the third period, lost it in the final minute and then won the game in overtime to close out 2020.

Though not because of the favorable outcome, Northern head coach Grant Potulny said during a phone interview Thursday that he was encouraged compared to the Wildcats’ previous game at home against Michigan Tech on Dec. 19.

“Here’s what’s interesting, the last game we played before (Wednesday), I thought our bench was quiet,” he said. “I thought our energy was low.

Northern Michigan University's Joseph Nardi, center, takes a knee to the face from Alaska-Anchorage's Alex Frye during a third-period faceoff in their WCHA game played Jan. 11, 2020, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. Looking on for the Seawolves at right is Zach Nazzarett. Frye has transferred to NMU after the Alaska suspended its hockey program this season. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“(Wednesday) night, I really liked our bench. I thought our energy was high. We made a couple individual blunders that allowed 2-on-1s or major scoring chances. It wasn’t necessarily how the game was going, because the game started, and for the first four or five minutes before we took a penalty, I thought we were all over them.

“And we take a penalty and we kill it and then turn one over, a major-league chance. Turn another one over. It was three individual plays that put us in a hole.”

At the same time, Potulny was pleased with how the ‘Cats rallied to tie the score and weren’t rattled when the Bulldogs took the lead again just seconds before the end of the second period.

“I just said to the players that we’ve had such funny games with them (the Bulldogs) that whether it’s the 1-0 game a couple of years ago right at the end, whether it was last year down there, I think we had a 3-0 or 4-0 lead and we had to win the game 6-5,” he said. “We gave it away. Whether it was being here and being up 4-0 and winning the game 5-4. So just stay with it, chip away, we’re gonna get our chances and we’re gonna score, but we’ve got to have the right attitude.

“Then we tie it 3-3 and I thought we were really playing well and then we give one up with five seconds left in the second period and that could’ve been a back-breaker. But we took the attitude that ‘Hey, we got it within one.’ Not ‘We gave it away again,’ and came out and played a good third period.”

Northern Michigan University forward Garrett Klee, right, faces off against Ferris State's Lucas Finner during the first period of their game on Dec. 16 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

Other positives for Northern going into this weekend were forwards Vincent de Mey and A.J. Vanderbeck finding their scoring groove with each scoring twice against Ferris, while NMU also notched three power-play tallies.

“It’s been important for those guys to chip in offensively and you can see their ability to score,” Potulny said. “We’ve got to make sure that we continue with those guys to coach them to play the right way because when they do play the right way, they are very dangerous players.

“I think when they get, like any player, if you start to hope a little bit and think about scoring instead of playing the game, that’s when you don’t end up being as successful as you would’ve hoped….

“I think there’s a lot of room for the power play to grow still. We’ve scored because I think we’ve got some talent on the rink. I don’t necessarily know that we’ve clicked yet, and it sounds funny to say that, but I think that there’s much more for our power play to give and generating momentum and some of those things. But definitely scoring those three goals was the big difference in the game.”

The Wildcats have to move on quickly from the win, though, as the Mavericks have been the team to beat in the conference for the past few years. Even though it’s only played five games, Mankato (3-1-1) has looked sharp. Despite the Mavericks’ potency, Potulny said that NMU is focusing on itself instead of entirely on its opponent.

“Obviously, you’ve got to pay attention to what they do on their special teams because that changes from team to team, but besides that, a lot of us play the game the same way, and for us it’s (about) continuing to get better,” he said. “And from COVID(-19), you still keep talking about it, but it’s been five weeks really where we haven’t really practiced.

“So yes, we have a game, and yes, we have an opponent, but we have things that we have to work on, and obviously the blunders that I talked about from (Wednesday) night, that happened before too, individual-type plays, those are gonna be troublesome no matter who you’re playing.

“So our focus is on getting our game to the right places, and obviously make adjustments as the game goes. But we’re gonna continue to focus on us and work on trying to make our team better.”

One thing that might make the Wildcats better quickly is the arrival of forward Alex Frye, a transfer from Alaska-Anchorage, who was the Seawolves’ leading goal scorer last year. Potulny said he arrived earlier this week and has a chance to get into the lineup against the Mavericks.

“He got here on Monday,” Potulny said. “I just didn’t think it was right for him or for the team to practice one day and then be thrown in. But yeah, we’re excited about him. We’re gonna watch him the next couple days and see how he progresses.

“Based on the numbers of last year what he did, he would be our returning leading goal scorer that plays center…. This is a player that’s got 3 1/2 years left, and had a good freshman year at Anchorage and we’re excited about him joining our team.”

Northern has had an up-and-down run in its four games, but Potulny is still feeling positive as the Wildcats get set for Mankato and 2021.

“Hockey and seasons just have momentum swings,” he said. “You’re gonna have ups and you’re gonna have downs….

“But we’re excited to play and we’re excited to be at home and looking forward to another chance to test ourselves this weekend.”

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

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