Craighead’s hat trick guides NMU to sweep

VOIGT+AND+POTULNY+KICKOFF+NORTHERN+NOW%E2%80%94Swim+and+Dive+Head+Coach+Heidi+Voigt+and+Hockey+Head+Coach+Grant+Potulny+will+be+interacting+with+NMU+alumni+and+community+members+in+the+debut+of+the+series%2C+Northern+Now%2C+hosted+by+the+NMU+Alumni+Association.+Travis+Nelson%2FNW

VOIGT AND POTULNY KICKOFF NORTHERN NOW—Swim and Dive Head Coach Heidi Voigt and Hockey Head Coach Grant Potulny will be interacting with NMU alumni and community members in the debut of the series, Northern Now, hosted by the NMU Alumni Association. Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson

 The road to a NCAA Tournament bid draws closer for the NMU Men’s Hockey team, and the ‘Cats took care of business on its home ice with a sweep of the Ferris State University (FSU) Bulldogs.

It was a series where two wins were expected, and needed, for the Wildcats. NMU (16-8-4, 14-5-1 WCHA) won both games with matching final scores of 5-2 on Friday, Jan. 31, and Saturday, Feb. 1. Head Coach Grant Potulny has been saying for weeks that his team needed to improve on its power play and penalty kill units (special teams). This past weekend gave him a glimpse of what his guys can do.

“[There’s] a lot to be pleased with, especially Saturday, I thought the special teams were better,” Potulny said. “Areas that were loose on Friday, we cleaned up for the most part on Saturday.”

Friday night’s game suggested a blowout win for the ‘Cats looking at the box score, but the score wasn’t indicative of NMU’s play.

The Wildcats were shot out of a cannon to begin the game, as senior forward Darien Craighead continued his hot streak with a goal just 28 seconds into the game. The ‘Cats took an early 1-0 lead, and the score stayed that way throughout most of the period until Craighead scored his second goal of the night while FSU was on the power play. 

After leading 2-0 at the intermission, sophomore forward sensation Griffin Loughran poured it on for the Wildcats with a shorthanded goal. The Bulldogs tried to fight back, cutting the deficit to 3-1 before the second intermission. Both teams battled defensively for most of the third period before FSU scored with four minutes remaining to make the score 3-2. The ‘Cats could point to one stat that kept the game so close for so long: 0-8 on the power play. NMU had success while being shorthanded, but the power play continued to be a thorn in its side.

After finding itself shorthanded once more, Northern Michigan responded with a goal by who else than Craighead. That gave him a hat trick, and ultimately won him WCHA Forward of the Month for his efforts. Craighead had a big month with 13 points in total with eight goals and five assists. With such a young NMU team, his leadership is priceless to Potulny.

“It’s so huge, part of it is the production that he’s given us, and that obviously is what people see,” Potulny said. “But when you look at teams in college hockey that play in the end, seniors carry them. And because of our lack of seniors, we only have three of them, we need them all to play well and he’s kind of starting to drive that line.”

Sophomore forward Vincent de Mey put on the finishing touches with an empty net goal in the final minute, giving the Wildcats a big 5-2 victory. 

Saturday’s game gave Potulny a better feeling, even though the score didn’t change from Friday. Freshman forward Andre Ghantous scored the game’s first goal for the ‘Cats with four minutes left in the period, but the Bulldogs weren’t going to give in easily. FSU answered back just 46 seconds later, resulting in a 1-1 tie after the first period. In the second period, the team came alive, and fortunately so did the crowd. 

The Wildcats’ offense erupted behind the screaming of the Puckheads, and outscored FSU 3-0 in the period. Forwards senior Joseph Nardi and junior Brandon Schultz got it going early in the second period, as they both scored within two minutes of each other. Senior forward Luke Voltin connected on a power play goal to extend the lead to 4-1, the only one for the Wildcats on the weekend. FSU cut the score to 4-2 with a goal in the third period, but NMU had an answer from the stick of junior forward Caleb Schroer late. The ‘Cats won with the second 5-2 score of the weekend, but Potulny didn’t put them in the same category.

“I think we talked about that Friday didn’t feel like a 5-2 win, but Saturday did,” Potulny said. “I felt like we were in control of that game from start to finish, so it was a good effort.”

For a third consecutive week, NMU remains ranked No. 15 in the USCHO poll. The challenge gets bigger this week for the ‘Cats, as they go on the road for a monumental series against the No. 3 Minnesota State University- Mankato (Minnesota State Mankato) Mavericks on Friday, Feb. 7, and Saturday, Feb. 8. The Mavericks came up to Marquette in December to face the Wildcats, and the two-game series resulted in both teams winning a game. NMU remembers winning that game, and that gives them the confidence to do it again.

“Confidence is high. And the other thing that I think is important to note, is that for whatever reason, the first couple years we haven’t had a chance to play a team above us in the standings in the back half of the year,” Potulny said. “We have a great opportunity, and we’ve always been kind of hoping and wishing that ‘boy, we’re playing good, it’d be nice to play somebody like whoever [a good team]’. Well here’s our chance, and we have to make do with it.”

Special teams improved in Saturday’s win for the Wildcats, but Minnesota State Mankato is a different animal. Potulny knows that everyone talks about the Mavericks’ offense, but its defense deserves credit too. Minnesota State Mankato’s top-notch defense is why executing on special teams is that much more critical, and Potulny pointed that in its last four games, the only goals that they’ve given up are on the power play or were off of a deflection.

“Well you have to win the special teams battle. That’s an area that they’re so good defensively, when you think about Mankato, you think about how offensive they are, for sure they can score with the best of them,” Potulny said. “They don’t give you anything, you don’t get any freebies, you think about ways that you can score goals.”

The Mavericks are first in the WCHA with 56 points, and the Wildcats are currently in third with 44 points. NMU has a golden opportunity to get six points on the road, and give themselves a chance to get home-ice advantage in the conference tournament.