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Waiting is the hardest part: Northern Michigan University hockey team prepares for upcoming WCHA tourney

Northern Michigan University’s Mike Van Unen, right, and Michigan Tech’s Trenton Bliss chase the puck in the Wildcats zone during the second period on Saturday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

“So if there was ever a year to be on the road … I guess this is the year because some of those other factors you’d just typically would have to deal with are not obviously going to be part of it this year.” — Grant Potulny, NMU head hockey coach,

on opening the WCHA playoffs away from the Berry Events Center

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MARQUETTE — The late rock singer Tom Petty once sang that “the waiting is the hardest part.”

It’s that’s what the Northern Michigan University hockey team is going through right now.

The Wildcats (8-15-1, 6-7-1 WCHA) wrapped up their regular season last weekend by getting swept at the hands of rival Michigan Tech, including a heartbreaking overtime loss at home in the series’ second game on Saturday that ensured that NMU will be on the road to start the conference tournament.

Northern Michigan University's Vincent de Mey, left, brings the puck out of the Wildcats' zone as Michigan Tech's Brian Halonen gives chase during the second period on Saturday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

Most of the rest of the league is spending this week playing makeup games that were postponed because of coronavirus pandemic precautions.

As disappointing as Saturday’s result was, Potulny was pleased with how hard his defensemen worked after losing Hank Sorensen to a game misconduct and Tyrell Boucher to a season-ending injury in the 3-2 loss.

“Honestly, I don’t think people understand how almost impossible it is to play every other shift,” he said in a Monday Zoom interview about his defensemen. “I mean, imagine this, imagine for an hour and a half essentially with about a 20-minute break, maybe not an hour and a half, but an hour, running as hard as you possibly can for anywhere from 45 seconds to a minute, as hard as you possibly can. And then you get a 45-second break and then you have to do it again.

“And then you add in the physicality to it about what that is. The way those guys battled, I mean there was some shifts that they could barely move. You have to kill two five-minute majors with four defensemen, you’re down two goals and you still find a way to get it to overtime and get a chance in 3-on-3. So those four guys, really, really gutty effort.”

Boucher broke his leg after a Tech player delivered a slew-foot during the second period, but despite that, the refs didn’t call a penalty.

When asked if he requested the league to review the play, Potulny said he didn’t.

“I’m not a fan of supplemental discipline,” he said. “I mean, obviously, some coaches are. I’m not. I don’t think that’s a dirty player. I think it was a bad play, but I don’t think the player is a dirty player.

“My problem is that we’ve played one school six times throughout the course of the year. In those six games, we have five five-minute majors called on us. They have zero. Throughout the remainder of the season, we only have three. So we have three five-minute majors throughout the whole entirety of the rest of the season and we have five against one other school in six games.

“And Saturday night’s game, the second being a 5-foot-7, 145-pound forward checking a 6-foot-2, 205-pound defenseman, and that constitutes the second five. And the explanation I got on the slew-foot was that their legs just got tangled, they were going different directions. During the game, I don’t have access to video. So I have to believe what the officials tell me. After watching the video, that is not what happened. It’s disappointing.”

Sorensen, on the other hand, is still healthy. However, he’s suspended for the first game of the Wildcats’ opening playoff series thanks to his third game misconduct this year. Potulny said if NMU doesn’t get Noah Ganske back next weekend, it’ll play with only five defensemen during Game 1.

That’s an important consideration. The bigger question, though, is who Northern will play in the opening round. The ‘Cats have no say in the matter as they have no games left to play, but the teams surrounding them in the standings do.

Tech and Lake Superior State are currently tied with NMU for third place with the Huskies playing two games at league champion Minnesota State-Mankato this week, and the Lakers travel to Bemidji State and then host a game against last-place Ferris State.

Bemidji is in sixth place, but it plays four times this week and could leap into third place quite easily and possibly even second if things go well for the Beavers. So the Wildcats probably won’t know until Sunday if they’ll be staying in the Upper Peninsula to face Tech or Lake State, or leaving the state for Bemidji or Bowling Green State.

Normally teams want to play at home during the postseason, but Potulny thinks that due to the unique circumstances this year, playing on the road isn’t that big of a deal. Not only that, but for some reason, the Wildcats have done better away from their Berry Events Center.

“We’ve been better on the road; in the conference on the road, we’re 3-1,” he said. “I don’t think there’s much difference to be honest in teams 2 through 6, so that kind of mitigates a little bit of who you play or how it plays out that way.

“Obviously, having last change would be nice (which home teams get), but now, we can’t control that and there’s no fans. So if there was ever a year to be on the road, this will be the first time we’ve been on the road in the playoffs, and if there’s ever a year for it, I guess this is the year because some of those other factors you’d just typically would have to deal with are not obviously going to be part of it this year.”

While Northern plays the waiting game, Potulny said that it will focus on improving themselves during the week off.

“I do think an off week at this time of the year is going to be really beneficial for us,” he said. “We’ve got some guys banged up. Getting them some time to rest will be good.

“We have to work on generating offense again. I mean, you take out the eight-goal game against Huntsville, we’re averaging one goal a game the other five games. So it’s tough to win scoring one.

“We’ve got to work on the power play. Power play’s got to find a way to come together and I’m going to coach them hard. It’s a good chance, I haven’t been able to coach them overly hard the last, probably month, just due to so many games that we’ve had. Midweek games, travel, some of that stuff.

“So get a little bit of rest, try to generate some offense and get some hunger in our game, and hopefully get us to a point where we can be prepared to go win a series.”

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

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