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Trying for change: Northern Michigan University hockey coach Grant Potulny emphasizes new approach vs. Lake Superior State

Northern Michigan University goalie Nolan Kent makes a save as teammates Ben Newhouse, top right, and Ty Readman watch in the first period against Minnesota State at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Sunday. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

“Bottom line is we have to play better and I have to coach better. — Grant Potulny, head coach, NMU hockey

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MARQUETTE — Two days after preaching the importance of effort, Northern Michigan University head hockey coach Grant Potulny was talking about change.

Change might be needed for the Wildcats, who were not only swept by now-No. 4 Minnesota State-Mankato, but were shut out in both games.

Potulny tried to change around his lineup from Saturday to Sunday, starting Nolan Kent in net instead of Connor Ryckman. NMU even wore its gold jerseys for the first time this season on Sunday, but despite that, it didn’t result in a victory or any WCHA points.

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 Saturday. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

During a Zoom interview Monday, Potulny said he needs to change the way he sends a message if the Wildcats (2-4, 0-2 WCHA) are going to get any nonconference wins this weekend at home against Lake Superior State (4-1-3).

The series is nonconference since it is a replacement series for one of the Alaska schools that dropped out of competition in the league this season. The WCHA decided it wanted to keep an even playing field with schools playing each other in two games for 14 total.

“I still feel the same way (from Sunday night),” he said. “Like I said (Sunday), whatever the way that my message has been delivered is not getting through. So I need a new vehicle.

“It’s not (that) the game of hockey is not that complicated. I don’t think it’s a player-ability issue. It’s an issue that we have to get figured out of lining up against somebody and just winning your 50-50 battle.

“And we made some strides (Sunday) in the right way for sure. There were some players that didn’t play in the game (Sunday) that have played a lot of hockey for us. There’s a reason they didn’t play, so that those things hopefully that message is delivered.

“Losing (Tanner) Vescio and (Hank) Sorensen has affected us obviously, but that’s not an excuse and we have six healthy defensemen. Bottom line is we have to play better and I have to coach better.”

Another thing that Potulny said had to be better was the Wildcats’ special teams units. Northern was burned by the Mavericks’ potent power play consistently over the weekend — Mankato scored five power play goals along with a shorthanded one — while its own power play struggled to generate opportunities.

“I’m more upset about the penalty kill because nothing changed from night one to night two,” the coach said. “We actually made an adjustment that I thought would help us on it. The first goal was just bad luck, the second goal was a guy that just, I’m not exactly sure why he wasn’t where we were asking him to be.

“But those are errors on the penalty kill that can’t happen. We’ve changed our penalty kill so it’s not something that every weekend you have to spend a whole ton of time worrying about because a lot of the things are just the principles of it. So that’s more concerning for me.

“The power play (Sunday) was really disjointed. We didn’t really get it set up to have a chance to have any success. It’s funny, like we’ve scored on the power play all year besides this weekend, but I haven’t liked us. And we’re going to have to continue to try to find some combinations, but it’s the same with our lines. Again, I haven’t really liked any combinations that we’ve had, and we’ve got to find some chemistry and got to sort out who plays well with each other.”

When asked if any of the penalties that the Wildcats committed were tolerable, Potulny said they weren’t and killing those off hurt the team offensively as well.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “There’s times that you take a penalty and it’s something that you can live with and that’s if you’re denying a scoring chance. None of those were denying a scoring chance.

“Whether or not the players think that some of them were penalties, they’re penalties. And it’s been a theme for us and here’s the other thing is when you take all these penalties, number one, you’re wearing out (Joe) Nardi and some of these guys who play on power play and penalty kill, but secondly, like A.J. Vanderbeck’s not touching the ice for whatever that was (Sunday) night. There’s just 10 or 11 minutes where he’s not even available to play because he’s not on the penalty kill. He’s our leading scorer.

“So there’s all kinds of things that compound taking a penalty besides just the act and the fact you’ve got to kill it. There’s all other factors to it and it’s something that we continue to talk about. We talked about Ferris (State) and we’re on the road and we only take three penalties. It’s three or less for us. Like you’re going to take some penalties in a game for sure and we only take three.

“We get to go on the power play five times and we score three goals. That’s the difference in the game and that’s the recipe for success.”

Special teams are going to be vital if NMU wants to get a spark once it gets back on the ice again this weekend. LSSU (4-1-3) has defeated Michigan Tech and Alabama-Huntsville this year and managed a tie against Bemidji State, so the Lakers have been fairly successful. However, Potulny isn’t thinking about LSSU and is more focused on figuring out his own squad’s issues.

“Here’s the thing that I think as a group that we have to be aware of,” he said. “Is Minnesota State a good team? Yeah, they are for sure, but so is Michigan Tech, and so is Bowling Green, and so is Bemidji and so is Lake State.

“Like there’s not a lot of difference in teams this year. We have to get our stuff figured out … like I said to you last week, it’s all about us. Like we have to get us figured out and once we get our own house in order, then we can start working on some nuances about the opponent.”

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

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