WCHA playoff race heats up for Wildcats


SHIPPING OUT TO ALASKA—After a tough series against Cornell, the Wildcats don’t have it any easier when traveling to Alaska to face the Nanooks. Senior Captain Phil Beaulieu (pictured above) and his team are looking to make a statement this weekend. Photo courtesy of NMU Athletics

Travis Nelson

In November 2017 during the first year of the Grant Potulny era, the Wildcats had a home series against Minnesota State-Mankato. The Mavericks were nationally ranked, and defeated NMU in the series opener. Potulny heard his players before the second game, and there wasn’t disappointment in their voices, they lost to a good team.

Times have changed, and so have the heights of the program. This past weekend, on Friday, Jan. 17 and Saturday, Jan. 18, the Wildcats traveled to Ithaca, New York to battle the No. 1 ranked Cornell Big Red. In the series opener, NMU and Cornell tied 2-2, and in the second game, Cornell defeated the ‘Cats 3-1. Over two years ago, there wasn’t disappointment in coming up short against a top team. In year three of Potulny’s run, winning is the standard.

“You fast forward two years, you go on the road and play the No. 1 team in the country, and you tie. There was major disappointment from that game on Friday because we felt like we had that game won, the power play let us down all weekend,” Potulny said. “And then you go in on Saturday, and now you have an opportunity to have a great weekend if you could find a way to win.”

The Wildcats couldn’t capitalize on Saturday, and lost in a tight game. Even though the scoreboard showed a loss, and the locker room wasn’t happy, Potulny thought his team played good hockey. In fact, in most stats that matter to the NMU coaching staff, the Wildcats played the No. 1 team in the country. While the ‘Cats are trying to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, they played in an atmosphere that resembled it.

“Both games were playoff/NCAA Tournament-type games, neither team gave an inch,” Potulny said. “Neither goalie gave an inch, it was just really good hockey.”

Not only did Potulny notice, but the Wildcats even jumped up two spots in this week’s USCHO national poll to No. 15 despite going 0-1-1, the highest ranking in Potulny’s three years as head coach. However, there’s around two months to go in this season with regular season and the WCHA Tournament.

“The only poll that matters is the one at the end of the year, are you one of the 16 teams in the tournament?,” Potulny said. “It’s great to be recognized, for the players it’s nice to know that people are paying attention to what you’re doing, but it’s only January, it matters in March.”

The race towards March for the ‘Cats, as they travel to Alaska to face the Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF) Nanooks on Friday, Jan. 24 and Saturday, Jan. 25. UAF is one point above NMU for third place in the WCHA standings, and they’ve been the surprise of the league this year. The teams split when UAF visited the Berry Events Center on Friday, Nov. 15 and Saturday, Nov. 16. The Wildcats won the first game 2-1, but the Nanooks stole game two with a 3-2 victory.

“They’ve done a great job, they compete hard, they’re stingy and in their last four games they’ve only given up four goals,” Potulny said. “We can’t have a feeling out process, we can’t have a ‘we’re tired cause we’re in Alaska’, these are important points. As of today in the standings, they’re ahead of us, and we have to come back and put them in the rear view mirror and keep them there.”

If Northern doesn’t show up to play, they might have trouble against a tough Nanooks’ squad. With such a big series on the way Potulny has one concern this weekend.

“I hope we have energy, that’s my concern is that we make sure that we manage ourselves so that we go up there and not make an excuse that we played hard last weekend, and we traveled, cause nobody cares,” Potulny said. “At the end of the day, you’re there to play a game.”

Puck drop is slated for 11 p.m. eastern time between the Wildcats and Nanooks on Friday in Fairbanks, Alaska.