Another series led to two more wins for the Wildcats Hockey team, as they took care of business on home ice with victories of 5-3 and 4-2 over the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) Chargers on Friday, Nov. 1 and Saturday, Nov. 2.
NMU continued its red hot start, and improved its record to 6-1-1 on the season, including its current five-game winning streak. The ‘Cats moved up four spots in the United States College Hockey Online (USCHO) polls on Monday, Nov. 4 up to 16th place after sweeping the Chargers. Head Coach Grant Potulny was pleased with his team’s offense throughout the weekend.
“Probably offensively, the best we’ve been in the halfcourt. We score a lot off of the rush, that’s good but you’ve got to be able to wear people out,” Potulny said. “I thought we were good in the offensive end of the game.We’re still struggling with sorting the rush, picking up people with speed and it’s an area of concern. It’s an area for one, the betterment of own team, but two for our opponent this weekend. We’ve got to get it cleaned up by Friday.”
The team had its struggles in both games, as the winless Chargers wouldn’t go away. In the series opener on Nov. 1, NMU trailed 2-1 after the first period after a goal from defenseman Rylan Yaremko. However after a commanding second period saw NMU outscore UAH 3-0, the Wildcats took the lead and never gave it back after goals from forwards Griffin Loughran, Andre Ghantous and Darien Craighead. UAH cut the lead to 4-3 with 14 minutes left, but captain Philip Beaulieu scored the empty net goal and first goal of the season with 57 seconds remaining to extend his team’s lead to 5-3 for the final score.
The second game on Nov. 2 was a bit different in terms of the game, but the Wildcats once again rode a big second period to another win. The score was tied 1-1 at the first intermission, as forward Vincent de Mey scored for NMU on the power-play. Three minutes into the second period, forward Caleb Schroer took the puck himself and sailed a wrister into the back of the net to give the Wildcats a 2-1 lead. Not only did the ‘Cats have a good second period in the scoring category, they only gave up one goal to UAH during the five minute power-play. After UAH’s goal, the scored was tied 2-2 until Ghantous scored his second goal of the weekend six minutes later to give NMU a 3-2 lead heading into the third period. It was a stalemate throughout most of the final period until Loughran scored an empty netter with one minute to go for his second goal of the series to put the Wildcats up by two goals, winning 4-2.
The unsung heroes of both games were the goaltenders John Hawthorne and Nolan Kent. Hawthorne had 29 saves in Friday night’s win, and Kent had 25 saves and an assist in Saturday’s game. Potulny said he likes how his goalies have been playing so far, and that he’s still going to stick with both as of now because it’s working.
Things might have seemed easy for the Wildcats thus far, but have a big challenge coming in to Marquette in the St. Cloud State University (SCSU) Huskies. SCSU was the best regular season hockey team in the country last season before being upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Its historic run even included a face-off against NMU, and didn’t face much resistance in beating the Wildcats by a combined 9-1 in two games. However, the Huskies haven’t played to its potential to start this season, as they find themselves 1-2-3 and out of the rankings for the first time since March 2017. Even though SCSU has been struggling, Potulny knows that this is still a very good hockey team.
“I don’t care what their record says, I just watched them. They got two kids that are playing that look like (NHL) first round picks. One of them has been an All-American a couple times and the other is playing like one,” Potulny said. “The tape doesn’t lie, they’re good. They’re going to be good, and we’re going to have to play well if we’re going to have success.”
It is another big non-conference match-up for NMU, as these are the kind of games that can get the Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament come late March. In years past, tough losses in these early games of the season have crushed the Wildcats’ post-season hopes, but that doesn’t mean this year can’t be different.
“I think when you look at the history of the last couple of years, we’ve won 20 games each year in a row, but sometimes, it’s the ones that you don’t win that cost you,” Potulny said. “The non-conference has hurt us. Obviously, we’ve played tough opponents and that’s going to affect it. This season, we’ve put ourselves in a good start non-conference. It’s a real challenge early in the year, especially for both teams because it matters so much at the end.”
These are the games that determine if the Wildcats will make or miss the NCAA Tournament, Potulny said.
The marquee match-up between the Huskies and Wildcats will take place at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 7, and at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 8 at the Berry Events Center.