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Big weekend in store: Northern Michigan University hockey team tries to keep pace in WCHA with home series tonight, Sunday vs. Bowling Green State

Ferris State's Blake Evennou, right, passes the puck up ice as Northern Michigan University's Brandon Schultz trails during the second period on Jan. 29 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

MARQUETTE — With the college hockey season starting to wind down, every series becomes important.

But this weekend’s pair of games are beyond that — they’re outright crucial — for the Northern Michigan University hockey team.

That’s because the Wildcats are trying to keep pace in the WCHA standings and are one of a handful of teams in the conference fighting for the final three home ice positions in the playoffs.

NMU (8-12, 6-4 WCHA) is tied with this weekend’s opponent, Bowling Green State (16-8, 5-5), in second place with 17 points, followed by Michigan Tech (12 points) and Lake Superior State (11).

Puck drop is set for 6 p.m. today and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Berry Events Center. The series was shifted a day later than the usual Friday-Saturday when the midweek games with Alabama-Huntsville were scheduled recently as a makeup series.

Northern Michigan University's Joe Nardi, center, battles with Michigan Tech's Logan Pietila in the Wildcats' defensive zone as NMU defenseman Mike Van Unen looks on during the first period on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

The Wildcats had a chance to take sole possession of second place earlier this week if they had swept Huntsville at home, but instead, they had to settle for a split with the Chargers.

After Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to Huntsville, Wildcats head coach Grant Potulny was visibly upset and felt that his team didn’t “respect” their opponent or the game. However, he felt differently after NMU blew out Huntsville 8-2 the following night.

“It was different,” he said in the Wednesday postgame Zoom interview. “Just even in the way when guys hop the boards and decisions they make with the puck and some physicality.

“And obviously, the score got crooked early, but I don’t think that was a byproduct of us making just a ton of these great plays. I think it was a byproduct of us playing the game the right way, having opportunities and finishing on those opportunities.”

Northern used a balanced offense to bounce back in the second game with freshmen Mikey Colella and Tim Erkkila getting their first career goals. Potulny was happy to see more people carrying the load instead of relying on just a couple guys to lead the offense.

“We need everybody,” he said. “Over the streak that we’ve been playing pretty well, a couple of guys have kind of been carrying the mail. As much as you hope that continues, you can’t count on that every night.

“So I thought it was important that Colella got his first goal. He was getting chances, he had chances at Bemidji, he had a look or two (Tuesday) night. I thought it was important and it was nice to see Tim Erkkila get one and get A.J. (Vanderbeck) back on the board and nice for Griff (Loughran) to get one when we got back and Andre (Ghantous) kept going.

“Really balanced attack, seeing Schultzie (Brandon Schultz) get one was good. We’re going to tinker a little bit with our lines still, I think, but it’d be nice to have three solid lines.”

As nice as that win was, Northern now has to focus on the Falcons as a sweep could all but lock up home ice, not to mention second place in the league. However, beating BG isn’t going to be easy, even though the Falcons have lost four straight. The Ohio team swept the ‘Cats decisively — 5-1 and 6-2 — at their place in mid-January. Those were nonconference games; this weekend’s count fully in the WCHA.

“There’s a big difference between playing poorly and just coming on the wrong side of a couple games,” Potulny said about the series at Bowling Green. “Hey, they were (No.) 4 in the country at one point. They have an elite first line. Their goalies are good, I think their ‘D’ corps is good. They always play us hard every time.

“We’ve kind of got a rivalry going with them. It wasn’t much of a rivalry down there, they got us twice. So we’ve got to be prepared to give everything we’ve got to get ourselves in a good position (tonight).”

When asked if he felt his squad is moving in the right direction after the win over Huntsville, Potulny said he’s feeling better and thinks the Wildcats have a great opportunity this weekend.

“You’re still disappointed in what happened (Tuesday) night, but you got yourself in a position, when you start the year, the goal is always home ice,” he said. “We have ourselves in a position where we’re going to be playing two teams that we’re going to be fighting and slugging it out right at the end for it.

“I think there’s probably … still six teams that are fighting for four of those (home) spots. One of them is taken by (Minnesota State-)Mankato, so now there’s five of us fighting for three spots. It’s going to be a challenge.

“We have a different look than we had before, obviously, the goalie is different. We’ve got a couple of different players in Andre (Ghantous), Griff and Hank (Sorensen) that weren’t available the first time, but we’ll also be missing a guy or two. So it’s going to be a really good challenge for us. They’re a great team.”

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

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