Hockey gears up for Tech

Photo+by+Neil+Flavin%3A+Junior+forward+Troy+Loggins+takes+the+puck+and+tries+to+manuever+around+some+Minnesota+State+players+on+his+way+to+goal.+Along+with+senior+forward+Robbie+Payne%2C+Loggins+is+ranked+among+the+top+scorers+in+the+WCHA.

Photo by Neil Flavin: Junior forward Troy Loggins takes the puck and tries to manuever around some Minnesota State players on his way to goal. Along with senior forward Robbie Payne, Loggins is ranked among the top scorers in the WCHA.

Ryan Spitza

The NMU Hockey team is nationally ranked for the first time in almost three years after splitting with then-No. 9 Minnesota State-Mankato at the Berry Events Center last weekend.

After dropping Friday’s contest 3-0 and rebounding on Saturday to win 4-1 in convincing fashion, the Wildcats snuck into the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll at No. 20, the first time the team has been nationally ranked since Dec. 1, 2014.

NMU head coach Grant Potulny said while the ranking is nice to see from a respect standpoint, it doesn’t mean too much this early in the season.

“They were aware of it,” he said. “I’m happy for them to be rewarded and acknowledged for their hard work but it’s a long season. I am happy for the guys because they have put a lot of work in up to this point, but at this point it doesn’t mean much.”

The focus now shifts to this weekend for a home-and-home conference tilt with rival Michigan Tech. The Huskies are coming off of a loss and a tie at home against Bowling Green, dropping MTU out of the national rankings for the first time this season.

Despite the national rankings, the WCHA matchup between the two foes is much more intriguing. The Huskies and Wildcats are currently tied for third place in the WCHA standings with nine points apiece, just three back of co-leaders Mankato and BGSU. The advantage for the Wildcats is that while they’re tied for third with MTU, they’ve only played four conference games to the Huskies’ eight, giving them a games-in-hand situation for later in the season.

The last time the schools met in February, each team stole a win in each other’s building. The Huskies fended off a fierce Wildcats attack in the final seconds of Friday’s game at the BEC to hold on for a 3-2 victory before NMU returned the favor with a 5-3 victory at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton the following night.

This will be the 145th and 146th meetings all-time between the two schools. The Wildcats hold the all-time series lead at 70-60-14.

The Huskies have had the Wildcats number as of late, though. Since NMU rejoined the WCHA, the Huskies hold the series lead 11-4-1. The Wildcats haven’t defeated the Huskies at the Berry Events Center since Oct. 23, 2015.

The series may look a little different from the benches this weekend, with both programs under new head coaches. Former LSSU, NMU and most recently MTU assistant coach Joe Shawhan took lead for the Huskies this season after Mel Pearson accepted the head coaching spot at the University of Michigan.

Potulny said he’s looking forward to experiencing the rivalry first hand.

“It’s hard to know because you don’t have any background for it,” he said. “You’ve heard about it, but until you’re living it you wouldn’t know. It’s very similar to my old job, there’s a couple of border schools that were big time rivals for us and this week is no different. I know our guys are laser-focused this weekend because of the opponent, and I’m sure we have their full attention also.”

Don’t let MTU’s record fool you. While 4-5-2 isn’t ideal, the Huskies took quality wins over Union and then-No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth to win the annual Ice Breaker Tournament at the start of the season.

Potulny said he won’t underestimate the Huskies this weekend as they’ve ran into four difficult conference games with Mankato and BGSU.

“They got a lot of guys on that team that have had a lot of success,” he said. “They’ve played four tough games. Had they won those four games or lost those four games that doesn’t change my feeling about their program or their team.”

NMU has its quality wins as well, defeating then-No. 6 Wisconsin at the Resch Center in Green Bay and then-No. 9 Mankato this past weekend.

Other news and notes: Junior goaltender Mathias Israelsson made 23 saves in Saturday’s 4-1 win against the Mavericks, enough to give him WCHA Goaltender of the Week honors. Payne has scored a goal in every series this season, putting him in a tie for third in the NCAA for goals scored with seven.

This weekend’s series begins Friday in Houghton before the teams return to Marquette on Saturday with both games slated for a 7:07 ET p.m. puck drop. If you can’t make it out, the games will be televised on FOX UP.