Northern Michigan University Wildcats set to drop first puck Saturday night at home vs. Bowling Green

Northern Michigan University’s AJ Vanderbeck, front left, plays in front of the Falcons’ net during a game against Bowling Green State at the Berry Events Center in Marquette during the 2021-22 season. After leading the CCHA in goals a year ago, Vanderbeck was named to the All-CCHA Preseason Team by a coaches vote earlier this month. (Photo courtesy NMU)

MARQUETTE — The snow’s flying and the ponds are freezing over, so it must be hockey season!

Wait a minute, it’s not even October yet, there’s no snow and it’s been close to 70 degrees in the last day or two, but nevertheless, the Northern Michigan University hockey team is ready to start its season in barely more than 24 hours when the Wildcats not only play a regular season game, but a CCHA game on Saturday night — the first day of October — at the Berry Events Center.

NMU entertains Bowling Green State in an somewhat unusual Saturday-Sunday series with both games scheduled to drop the puck at 6:07 p.m.

It’s the initial games of the season for the entire league and this will be the only intraleague matchup this weekend — at least that counts in the CCHA standings. Michigan Tech and Lake Superior State will meet in Houghton on Saturday night for a single exhibition game.

This early series signals a quick start to a season that will be nearly half over by Thanksgiving — the Wildcats will have played 16 of their 34 regular-season games by then.

Probably the biggest news for the Wildcats in the preseason was their pick as the No. 2 team in the league behind defending NCAA Division I national runner-up Minnesota State-Mankato.

NMU received two of the eight first-place votes in the coaches voting in attaining the runner-up ranking among the league’s eight teams.

The Wildcats are also No. 20 in the USA Today-USA Hockey Magazine poll and received votes in the opening USCHO rankings.

Certainly Northern head coach Grant Potulny knows that big targets like these early rankings can be just the setup to be knocked down like a bunch of bowling pins.

And Bowling Green would be just the team to knock over NMU as the Falcons were the No. 3 pick in the league, just three voting points behind the Wildcats.

Nevertheless, there had to be a reason that Northern was thought of so highly at the season’s outset.

One reason would be the return of senior and now captain AJ Vanderbeck after he led the CCHA in scoring with 24 goals last year. He added 19 assists for 43 points, eighth in points in the conference.

While he was named to the All-CCHA Second Team at the end of last season, he also earned All-CCHA Preseason Team honors earlier this month.

Another reason for high expectations is Potulny himself, now in his sixth season at NMU as he has posted a 95-80-11 record that includes three 20-plus-win seasons including last year, when the Wildcats were 20-16-1 overall and they defeated Lake Superior State on the road in the CCHA quarterfinals before falling to eventual NCAA championship game finalist Mankato in the semifinals. This all came after Northern was a modest fifth in the league at 12-13-1 during the CCHA’s regular season.

A third reason for optimism is a player no one really knows yet — CCHA Preseason Rookie of the Year Joey Larson. He earned that honor despite — actually because of — no collegiate playing experience, coming to Marquette from the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the U.S. Hockey League most recently, when he scored 32 goals and 34 assists for 66 points last season in 61 games. He also had four goals and 13 assists in nine playoff contests.

He’s originally from downstate Brighton, where he was named Michigan’s Mr. Hockey in 2019 while playing for nearby Hartland. In three years he had 60 goals and 48 assists for 108 points in 77 high school games.

Yet another reason is the return of freshman — now sophomore — sensation Charlie Glockner in goal after he was named to the All-CCHA Rookie Team at the end of last season. He was 7-4 with a 2.78 goals-against average and .904 saves percentage in 17 games.

Then there’s the return of 17 players from last year, including three of NMU’s top five scorers — joining Vanderbeck on that list are senior Andre Ghantous and junior Michael Colella.

Bowling Green counters with the return of Nathan Burke, who scored 16 goals last season, and Taylor Schneider, who had 22 assists in a 30-point campaign. Christian Stoever returns in goal after posting a 9-15-1 record, 2.88 GAA and .898 on saves.

In their long history that dates back to the original CCHA in the 1970s, Northern has won 56 times compared to 57 for the Falcons with 11 ties in their 124 meetings.

Last year, the Wildcats went 3-0-1 vs. BGSU, outscoring them 19-11 as NMU won twice in Ohio.

Joining Vanderbeck as a captain this season will be senior defenseman Tanner Vescio, while alternate captains have been designated as Ghantous and senior David Keefer.

Four transfers join 10 freshmen new to the team this year. The transfers are Simon Kjellberg from RPI, Aiden Gallacher and Kristof Papp from Michigan State and Artem Shlaine from Connecticut.

Information compiled by Journal Sports Editor Steve Brownlee. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.


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