Pesky Huskies chase ’Cats title hopes away

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Junior defenseman James Vermeulen covers Michigan Tech’s senior forward Brent Baltus. Vermeulen finished the game with one shot on goal and was on the ice for MTU’s opening goal. Photo by: Lindsey Eaton

Ryan Spitza

The Northern Michigan University Hockey team’s best season since 2001-02 came to a somber ending last Saturday, falling to Michigan Technological University 2-0 in the WCHA Championship game at the Berry Events Center.

The season was far from a failure, however. You can easily call it a success. The Wildcats posted a record of 25-15-3, its best record since a 26-12-2 campaign in 2001-02.

NMU head coach Grant Potulny reflected on his first year behind the bench.

“There’s so many positives, so many great memories,” he said. “The start of the year and the joy on their faces when we beat Wisconsin in overtime. Then we get a couple of big wins at home against Tech and (Minnesota State) Mankato, and you kind of see the ball moving forward and momentum going and you see a little consistency.

“I’ll never forget the first road trip, we went to Ferris State and swept them. The joy on the bus on the way home was fun. Then there was the second half of the year where you had a chance to be in first place for an extended period of time, and we were chasing the MacNaughton Cup right until the end and had some overtime victories against Bowling Green.”

Potulny added the atmosphere from Saturday’s championship contest was like no other.
“I’ve been fortunate to be in some really great environments, whether it’s world juniors or national championships. But that moment when you’re standing on the bench, and you look around, I haven’t been in a building with that much energy, ever. Those kind of things as a coach, you feel really proud and you feel happy for your players, because they worked and worked and worked.”

“We went out for warm ups and we just had a smile on our face.” said senior forward Robbie Payne. “Just to see how the community supported us and how much it has grown the past year. It’s unfortunate that the puck bounced the way it did, but we had every opportunity to do the same thing and get a couple of goals, it just didn’t bounce our way.”

Both teams had their chances in the first period, with each playing strong defense and receiving strong goaltending from NMU junior Atte Tolvanen and MTU junior Patrick Munson.


The Wildcats possessed the puck more throughout the first, and outshot the Huskies 9-7 at the end of the frame. However, the score remained 0-0.

MTU found the back of the net at 5:36 of the second period. As a Tech powerplay expired, the Huskies fired it into the NMU zone. The puck bounced off the end boards and in front of Tolvanen. As Tolvanen tried to cover the puck, it was just out of his reach and MTU freshman forward Greyson Reitmeier shot it into the net.

For the rest of the game, the Wildcats tried to find the game-tying tally, but were unable to find the offense.

Early in the third period, NMU senior forward Robbie Payne had a chance in the slot and had Munson beat, but the puck rang off the crossbar and it remained 1-0 Tech. The play was reviewed to determine if the puck had gone off of the post in the back of the net or the outside post. A short discussion from the officials, along with replay, determined that the puck did not cross the goal-line, and play was resumed.

“Some nights, the puck’s not going your way, you don’t get the bounces you want,” said senior forward Zach Diamantoni. “We didn’t finish on opportunities we usually do. We were just snake-bitten on the wrong game.”

With Tolvanen pulled late for the extra attacker, MTU senior Joel L’Esperance put the puck into the empty net to give the Huskies their second straight WCHA Tournament title.

With three seconds remaining in the game, an NMU shot found its way to the back of the Husky net, but was immediately waved off after being determined the puck was knocked in off of a high-stick.

Potulny wished farewell to the four Wildcat seniors and is already optimistic about next season.

“I’m sad to see the seniors leave, we’ll miss them dearly,” he said. “But I think we’ll have a very good team again next year and I think now they’ve tasted it. You get a little taste and you become very hungry for more success. I’m proud of them, I’m proud to be a Wildcat, and I’m proud of our community.”

Losing on home ice was a rare occurrence for this year’s Wildcats, who collected a 17-5 record at the Berry Events Center and had been victorious against Tech in both of their regular season home games. The playoffs offered a new level of competition for the ’Cats, who lost a home game in every playoff series this postseason, including Saturday’s single-elimination game against Tech.

“We were a hot team. We were a great team. We thought we had a great opportunity to win a championship and go to the NCAA championship,” said Payne. “As a group of guys, we would go into every game expecting to win.”

“This has been the best year here out of our four years,” said senior defenseman Jordan Klimek. “I love every guy we have in that locker room over there. I know there’s only greatness coming from them in years to come.”

With senior captains Robbie Payne and Zach Diamantoni departing, the Wildcats will be looking for leadership through the off-season and into next season. Top candidates for captaincy point toward junior forward Adam Rockwood, sophomore defenseman Philip Beaulieu, and junior forward Troy Loggins. Potulny in his first season relied heavily on senior leadership, but a familiar system could open new doors.