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Confident and relaxed: Northern Michigan University hockey team travels to Minnesota State-Mankato for WCHA playoff semifinals

Northern Michigan University forward Vincent de Mey, below, races up center ice as Ferris State’s Cade Kowalski defends in the first period on Jan. 30 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

“I thought he was the story of the weekend.” — Grant Potulny, NMU head hockey coach, on the play of freshman goalie Rico DiMatteo last weekend

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MARQUETTE — Win or go home.

That was the situation for the Northern Michigan University hockey team on Sunday night in the deciding third game of their series with now-No. 16 Bowling Green State.

The Wildcats finished that job, blowing out the Falcons 5-1 after getting thrashed the night before and edging BGSU by a single goal in the series opener on Friday.

Northern Michigan University forward Alex Frye, center, looks for an opening as Lake Superior State's Jacob Nordqvist, left, and Will Riedell defend during the first period on Jan. 8 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

NMU is back in the same situation as it travels to No. 3 Minnesota State-Mankato (20-3-1, 13-1 WCHA) at 3:07 p.m. EDT Friday and the WCHA switches to a single-elimination format.

If the Wildcats (10-16-1, 6-7-1) lose to the Mavericks, their season is over, but if they win, they’ll move on to the conference championship game against either No. 17 Lake Superior State (17-6-3, 9-5) or No. 13 Bemidji State (15-8-3, 8-5-1) in the playoff championship game at 8:07 p.m. EDT Saturday in Mankato.

Among the spoils for the playoff champion are the Jeff Sauer WCHA Championship Trophy and the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA Division I Ice Hockey Championship tournament.

Going into last weekend’s series, Northern was winless against the Falcons this season, with the only positive result a scoreless tie with the ‘Cats prevailing in a shootout for the extra league point.

So naturally, NMU needed to play at its best to get two wins against BG. But things didn’t look good after Saturday’s 5-0 whitewash that allowed the Falcons to send the series to Sunday’s deciding third game.

Rico DiMatteo

Despite the big loss in the middle game of the series, Northern head coach Grant Potulny said his players stayed calm and were focused on the task in front of them.

“I really liked the attitude going down to Bowling Green,” he said in a Zoom interview Monday. “I really liked how the guys were really focused, starting with our captain (Joe Nardi). It kind of bled into Sunday. Before the game, it was just dead even-keeled. It wasn’t high emotion.

“Sometimes when guys don’t feel it and don’t have it, they try to get their own emotion up and you can sometimes sense when it’s fabricated.

“(But this) was just very much, ‘I’m not going to worry about the score. I’m not going to worry about what happens with the officiating. I’m just playing shift to shift.’

“Probably the best example of that is going into the third period, we were up two goals. Going into the third period on Friday, we were up three goals, and on Friday we played not to lose. Sunday we played to win, and I thought Sunday in their rink up two with the possibility of ending 10 (Bowling Green) seniors’ careers probably, we played our best period of the weekend.”

Mikey Colella

One of the key players for Northern was freshman goalie Rico DiMatteo, who kept the Falcons at bay during the majority of Sunday’s game.

“I thought he was the story of the weekend,” Potulny said. “We obviously got some scoring from some guys who hadn’t been on the sheet for a little bit, which is important, but even in the game that we gave up four or five, or whatever that score was, I thought (DiMatteo) played fantastic. He seemed really dialed in.

“To be honest, the only game that I don’t think he played well in was the game up at (Michigan) Tech, but he had never been in the rink. He had never skated there. Visual sightlines are really important for that position and he didn’t have a chance to feel some angle pucks and kind of catch pucks off the seats. With the exception of that game, I think he’s been very good for us and he’s given us a chance to win every game.

“And Sunday, like I think I’ve mentioned, he’s a really even-keeled person, a very mature person. Sunday, he made a couple saves early in the game that allowed us to kind of get our legs going and go the other way and start putting the heat on them and then grab the lead.”

NMU star forward Griffin Loughran sat out Sunday’s game and his status for Friday is still not known. However, the good thing for the Wildcats is Loughran’s replacement on the top line, Mikey Colella, scored two goals that day and has fit in well during the season with Nardi and Andre Ghantous.

“I will say this, in the games that Mike Colella has played with Nardi and Ghantous, they have been an outstanding line,” Potulny said. “The two games in Bemidji leading up to Sunday were in my opinion our best games of the year and we topped that on Sunday.

“So he seems to fit nice there, and hopefully he can continue that. And the thing about Mike is as a freshman, you’re going in the game, you think you’re on third line, you think you’re not on the power play. Lots of freshmen just want to make sure they weren’t part of a negative play. So he has no time to prepare for it, he finds out at the rink that he’s going up to the top line and going on the power play, and he scores two goals and scores one on the power play. So the moment’s not too big for him.

“He’s got a good self-confidence about him and we’re going to need that going in again to this weekend because it’s just the intensity and the moment just keeps ratcheting up every round. So we can’t have players that are afraid of the moment — and he’s not.”

The Wildcats will definitely need to stay confident and relaxed Friday as the Mavericks are the best team talent-wise in the conference as they ran away with the regular-season champion’s MacNaughton Cup this year, earned four of the five major WCHA awards, and are undefeated at home. Mankato also shut out NMU twice in Marquette in January.

“You’ve got to respect them,” Potulny said. “You’ve got to respect what they’ve done. You’ve got to understand the way the game’s got to go. We’re coming into this game without three of our defensemen, without the conference’s leading scorer from last year, probably with a bunch of youth and we’re going to play our best.”

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

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