Missed opportunity: Wildcats fail to clinch home ice in 8-4 loss to rival Michigan Tech

TRUSTING+THE+PROCESS%E2%80%94Its+a+process+for+NMU+student-athletes+to+be+tested+for+COVID-19+in+order+to+participate+in+practice+because+no+athletic+teams+are+currently+in+competition.+However%2C+once+competition+begins%2C+athletes+are+needed+to+be+tested+three+times+per+week.Travis+Nelson%2FNW

TRUSTING THE PROCESS—It’s a process for NMU student-athletes to be tested for COVID-19 in order to participate in practice because no athletic teams are currently in competition. However, once competition begins, athletes are needed to be tested three times per week.Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson

With a chance to clinch home ice for next week’s first round of the WCHA Tournament, costly penalties and many missed opportunities by the Wildcats Hockey team resulted in an 8-4 blowout loss to Michigan Tech on Friday night.

NMU was on its home ice to celebrate senior night, scored four goals, and outshot MTU 38-30. That’s usually a winning recipe, but in the end, the Huskies came out on top for the third time this year against the ‘Cats.

 After a tough way to end senior night, the Wildcats could finish as low as sixth in the WCHA standings with a loss on Saturday. Going into the game on Friday, Feb. 28, the ‘Cats were in third place in the standings with 47 points, four points ahead of Alaska-Fairbanks and Bowling Green, and six ahead of Michigan Tech.

Now with a new picture painted, a win for the Huskies would tie the standings up at 47 points apiece with NMU, and give MTU the higher seed due the tiebreaker of head-to-head record (MTU would finish 4-0 against NMU). Wins for Bowling Green against lowly Alabama-Huntsville, and Alaska-Fairbanks against Alaska-Anchorage would put each above both U.P. squads for third and fourth respectively. 

The Wildcats could be score watching, determining where its fate shall lie. But for Head Coach Grant Potulny, the way his team is playing is much more important, and it has a chance to control its own destiny for third place with a victory in the second game of the series.

“We have to worry about ourselves, we have given up so many goals the last month of the year, it doesn’t matter who we play in the playoffs,” Potulny said. “We know we’re in, it doesn’t matter who we play. if we can’t start holding people to two (goals), it’s going to be really hard.”

In game one of the closing series of the 2019-20 regular season, MTU scored eight goals in a game for the first time since 2017, and for the first time against the Wildcats since 2013. Despite the Huskies’ huge goal scoring effort, and hat trick from sophomore forward Trenton Bliss, NMU had its chances. 

After trailing 3-0 early on, two seniors, defenseman Phil Beaulieu and forward Darien Craighead, delivered with power play goals to cut the deficit to 3-2 going into the first intermission. Both teams scored one each in the second, resulting in a 4-3 Tech lead after two periods. But then everything snowballed in the third for NMU.

“You know, I feel bad for our guys. I thought we started the game playing very well, we scored four goals and we had some bad luck both offensively and defensively. And then you’re going into the third period and you’re down a goal,” Potulny said. “It’s one thing if you’re down 2-1 or 1-0 and you haven’t scored. You scored three already, you’re probably going to get a chance to get another one. You outshoot them 16-8, and they outscore you 4-1, that’s hockey sometimes.”

The Wildcats were 2-3 in the power play during the first period, but went 0-3 in the final period when it needed it most. It’s penalty kill let them down in the third as well, giving up a power play goal and a shorthanded goal to the Huskies. The offense was a positive to Potulny of course with four goals scored, but the other side of the coin was where his displeasure would be found.

“We scored three power play goals, but the penalty kill and the defense. The defense on our team, wherever you want to start with it,” Potulny said. “I mean we’re at the point where we have to take as few penalties as possible, and we have to block as many shots as possible and try to hold teams to 20 shots or less. That has to be our goal.”

Ultimately, outside from the disappointment of the result for the Wildcats, a bright spot can be found. On the team’s senior night, it’s three seniors, Beaulieu, Craighead and forward Luke Voltin, were honored before the game. Though the players felt saddened after a tough defeat to a rival, the tribute was heart felt.

“Yeah it was cool, they did a really good job with all of the things before the game,” Craighead said. “Fans were there with the big heads and everything, so it was a lot of fun. Just too bad we didn’t get the win.”

For the captain Beaulieu, his experiences of being a part of senior night added fuel to his fire.

“I’ve always been fired up for senior night, but being my own, it was pretty special. Darien said they did a pretty good job, the rest of the whole team was really good backing us up,” Beaulieu said. “The emotions were high, and you know pretty fortunate to do that, but really would’ve liked a win instead. But we still got tomorrow.”

After losing three straight to your rival in one season, confidence could be low for the fourth game. The Wildcats don’t appear to have lost it, but taking of advantage of opportunities that were missed in the first three games will be the message this time around.

“They’re (NMU) competitive guys, you’re sitting in a rivalry where they’ve (Michigan Tech) won all three games. Whether or not you played well the first two, it doesn’t matter,” Potulny said. “It doesn’t matter if you played well, it doesn’t matter if you outchance them and it doesn’t matter what happens. You play to win the game, and like I said, we have to get to a point where we’re not allowing shots. As hard as that may be, that’s how it has to be.”

The positivity isn’t wavering for Beaulieu and company, the playoffs are guaranteed for the Wildcats. It’ll most likely take a WCHA Tournament championship for the ‘Cats to make the NCAA Tournament, but all it takes is one team who gets hot once March rolls around.  

“We went through a skid there, but you know, it’s all about getting hot at the right time, so all you can do is keep putting your best foot forward and staying positive, and I think that’s what we do with this group,” Beaulieu said. “(We) may not be showing it on the ice right now, but I think there’s a lot of promise in this team, and a lot of resiliency which we’ve shown throughout the year. So anything’s possible, and I think we’re going to get hot at the right time.”

Puck drop for the rivalry showdown is at 6:07 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 29 in Houghton. This rivalry game will not only mean a lot for the WCHA standings, but it could be the win that the Wildcats are searching for to kick start its March run.