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Back on the ice: Hockey Wildcats host season opener Wednesday

From left, Michigan Tech's Brian Halonen and Northern Michigan University's Griffin Loughran and Rylan Yaremko line up awaiting a faceoff during the second period of their WCHA game played at the John MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton on Saturday night, Feb. 29, 2020. (Photo courtesy Cara Kamps)

MARQUETTE — It has taken much longer than expected, but the wait is finally over for the Northern Michigan University hockey team.

After the first three weeks of the season were canceled due to COVID-19 complications, the Wildcats will host their season opener Wednesday with a nonconference game against Ferris State. NMU swept all four games against the Bulldogs last year.

Northern head coach Grant Potulny was happy with how things were going with his squad before the shutdown started and said that it’s getting back to where it was a few weeks ago.

“I really liked our team before we had to go on pause,” he said in a Zoom interview Monday. “I thought we were really coming together and then when you’re off for three weeks and you come back, it doesn’t take as long to get it back. But there’s a couple days in there that guys really had to work through it and then on Saturday, we had a couple practices and we looked close to what we were like before. I like our team. Like anybody or anything though, until you play somebody, you really truly don’t know what you have and I’m looking forward to seeing what we have on Wednesday.”

When looking at the Bulldogs, who were swept by Bowling Green State last week, Potulny said that NMU knows what to expect. In fact, this may be the most prepared this team has ever been for its season opener considering they haven’t played a game for 284 days.

“They’re such a dangerous team because watching them play Bowling Green, the way that their wingers can take off, and probably when you think about some guys in the NHL, it’s unfair to compare NHL players to college players, but you know like you’re watching a game and all of a sudden, (Chicago Blackhawks forward) Patrick Kane’s on a breakaway or (Calgary Flames forward) Johnny Gaudreau’s on a breakaway,” he said. “Maybe nothing was happening, but they just find that area. We’ve got to be really careful with our defensemen not to get into situations where we’re getting sucked outside the dots and giving some speed underneath. That’s gonna be a big focus for us. We’ve spent a lot of time working on the offensive zone play, so I hope our D can be involved and in all of our scrimmages, they’ve scored and they’ve been involved. When you think about a typical season, good D corps can get you 20 goals. Obviously, a truncated year, I don’t know how many games we’re gonna play, but you’re kind of hoping for a goal every weekend out of the D corps. Whether that’s on the power play, or 5 on 5, or whatever it is. So probably when you ask about Ferris, I’m nervous about that, but besides that, it’s not like we have a plethora of teams of tape that we’ve watched. We’re going off a lot of what they’ve historically done. Obviously, you want to get the special teams dialed in, but I’m probably more focused on what we’re doing than necessarily what Ferris is doing, with the exception of being careful of their guys stretching (the ice).”

As far as how the opening lineup looks, star forward Griffin Loughran will have to sit out due to a one-game suspension handed out at the end of last season, but other than that and the goaltending situation, Potulny says he’s almost got it all figured out.

“I’m pretty close,” he said. “There’s been some jockeying for the last couple spots. Griff can’t play. Griff got a suspension the first game of the year, so we’ll put somebody there just for that game. So there’s a little tinkering still, and to be totally honest, probably the position that I still don’t know is goaltender. I’m kind of leaning one way, but I truly still, I don’t know how I’m gonna do it yet.”

Potulny won’t be just thinking about his own goaltenders this week, he’ll also be focusing on Michigan Tech’s netminder, WCHA Goaltender of the Week Blake Pietila, this weekend. After the Wildcats tangle with Ferris, they’ll take on the rival Huskies in a home-and-home series with Saturday’s game being played in Marquette.

“The history of that program with Joe (Shawhan) as the coach, they’ve had a good goalie,” Potulny said. “Whether it was (Patrick) Munson, or what they had last year with (Matt) Jurusik. And now this guy looks like he’s the next kind of line of good goaltenders. Really like, you’re gonna have to make sure that he’s gonna have to make some saves. You can’t miss the net on opportunities to score. You can’t pass up shots and you can’t just be content to be on the outside. You’re gonna have to make some lateral plays to get him moving and try to find a rebound. To be honest, in college hockey, the goaltending has, you used to be a good goalie if you were 90. If you had a 90 (%) save percentage, you were a good goalie. Now, a lot of guys are .920, .930. So that’s just kind of the way college hockey’s gone. So we’re definitely gonna have to get to him for sure.

“It’s a funny week because you have two different opponents in the same week, which you typically don’t have. We’ve obviously spent time on Ferris first and I do probably know as much about Michigan Tech as anybody just based on paying attention to what they’re doing and knowing their players obviously last year, playing them right at the end there (in the WCHA playoffs). They’re an opportunistic team and they’ve always kind of have been. I think scoring first is gonna be important and trying to play with the lead in those games is gonna be paramount.”

When it comes to COVID, Potulny said he’s prepared to play with a roster that may be shorthanded each game just to get some of the games in.

“It’s really just making sure that you have enough guys to play and I think you’re gonna see some teams play some games this year, Wisconsin did it, and I’ll think you’ll see it in our league, somebody will come up and they might have 10 forwards, and five D, and one coach and one goalie,” Potulny said. “To start the year, I think it sounded ridiculous in that you were gonna try to get 13 games in to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. But that number is becoming really real for a lot of us. I think there maybe was thought of some gamesmanship early if the wrong guys had COVID, maybe they wouldn’t play the game, but based on how it’s gone, we’ve canceled eight games. So I do think if you’re able to play, I think you’re gonna see teams playing.”

That’s what NMU will be doing tomorrow night and not surprisingly, Potulny is ready to go, especially since the ‘Cats are the only team remaining in the WCHA whose season hasn’t gotten underway.

“We’re the only team in the West that hasn’t played a game in all of college hockey,” he said. “Colorado College had a delay to their season and Ferris State was the one team who hadn’t played yet either. So we are currently the only team who has not played a game in the whole western half of the U.S. So we’re looking forward to getting in that column of having games under our belt too.”

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

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