Patience is key through the process of rebuilding

Patience+is+key+through+the+process+of+rebuilding

Alex Skinner

Take a deep breath in, hold it, hold it—exhale. Now repeat after me, the Northern Michigan University Men’s Ice Hockey team is going to be fine.

Starting the season with a less than stellar 6-9 record at the moment, I get people asking me what the issue with this team is, why isn’t our record better? My answer is just to relax. The season is 20 percent behind us and while a lot of hockey has been played, there’s plenty more to go.

On the surface, a 6-9 record leaves a lot to be desired, especially after coming on the heels of last seasons improbable run to the WCHA Championship game and one bad bounce away from winning the game. But there’s a reason for those nine losses this season, the Wildcats have front-loaded their schedule to compete against some of the top teams in the country.

Head coach Grant Potulny mentioned earlier this season that it’s important to play these non-conference games because it gives the coaching staff an opportunity to gauge where the team stands among the nation’s elite. Potulny also acknowledged that if this team plans on going on a deep tournament run, it’s important to familiarize yourself with who you should expect to play.

Of the teams nine losses to start the season, seven of those losses came against ranked opponents, with four of those losses happening against teams ranked in the top 10. Those other two losses were just as justifiable when you take a look at the deeper story.

The Wildcats dropped their opening season matchup against Michigan State (MSU) and had yet to play a preseason game. Now, MSU has finished at the bottom of the Big Ten standings the previous two seasons and, like NMU, is under the guidance of a second-year head coach. The Spartans are a much-improved team who swept the same Cornell team on the road that came to Marquette and swept the Wildcats on their home ice.

In our only other non-ranked opponent loss, the Bemidji State Beavers scored a heartbreaking, last-second goal to end the game. Despite appearing that Northern had scored the go-ahead goal with just a minute left, the call was reversed because of goaltender interference. Without the late-game heroics from the Beavers at home, I don’t think anybody would be posing these qualms with this teams performance.

Had NMU won that game against Bemidji State, it would be simpler to look past some of these early season performances. If you’ve been looking for a red flag for the Wildcats to point towards their record to start the season, look no further than their defense late in games and periods.

In the season-opening victory against MSU, the Wildcats held a 3-1 lead heading into the third period that evaporated into a 3-3 tie before NMU netted the game-winner. Look at the previous mention of the Bemidji State. Look at Tuesday’s matchup against Notre Dame where they throttled our defense. Even look at Saturday’s matchup against LSSU. Despite walking away with a 2-1 victory, LSSU scored with 12 seconds left to prevent NMU senior goaltender Atte Tolvanen his 12th-career shutout victory.

If NMU hopes to advance deep in the WCHA Playoffs again this year and potentially the NCAA Playoffs, late-game management should be emphasized and the return of senior forward and team captain Denver Pierce should help. Pierce is an imposing, in-your-face defender who should help clean up defensively towards the end of the game.

Although it would be nice to see the Wildcats etch out some of these physical, one-goal games, it’s encouraging to see the team just on the outskirts of greatness.

Ignore the second week of the season matchup against St. Cloud State University and you’ll notice that most nights, NMU put themselves into an opportunity to win more games. All it would take to spark off another special run along the lines we watched last year is a solid, team win to gain some momentum to build upon. Fortunately for the ’Cats a huge, potentially season-defining matchup looms just around the corner, two weeks away.
Watch out, Michigan Tech.