Rivalry redemption: ‘Cats bounce back with 3-2 road win over Michigan Tech, will host first round of WCHA Tourney

JOINING+THE+RANKS%E2%80%94With+the+seasons+start+uncertain%2C+the+Wildcats+are+receiving+votes+in+the+USCHO+polls.+NMU+is+coming+off+of+a+18-16-4+season%2C+but+have+a+lot+of+experience+coming+back.+Travis+Nelson%2FNW

JOINING THE RANKS—With the season’s start uncertain, the Wildcats are receiving votes in the USCHO polls. NMU is coming off of a 18-16-4 season, but have a lot of experience coming back. Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson

After a disappointing home loss on Friday, the NMU Hockey team took care of its own business in the playoff race Saturday night, clinching the third seed and home ice in the first round of the WCHA Tournament with a 3-2 road win over Michigan Tech.

The Wildcats came out and played like a team that had a bad taste in its mouth, like a team that had just given up eight goals the night before. NMU blew it’s first chance to clinch home ice in Friday’s contest with missed opportunities, but the ‘Cats capitalized in the final game of the regular season on Saturday, Feb. 29.

In a game that was tied 2-2 for over a period, a crazy sequence of events led to NMU taking the 3-2 lead for good with 1:03 left. Sophomore goaltender Nolan Kent charged forward to stop the MTU rush, he got a piece of the puck, but the play resulted with a wide open net with the Huskies right there to knock it in. Tech couldn’t corral the puck, but the Wildcats did, resulting in a breakaway of its own. Senior forward Darien Craighead took the pass from junior defenseman Rylan Yaremko, skated the length of the ice, and shot it past MTU senior goaltender Matt Jurusik to give the ‘Cats the lead.

“Yeah, that was awesome, it was good to get a win for the team and get home ice advantage in the first round,” Craighead said. “That’s just kind of how the play developed, I think Nolan (Kent) played it and then Rylan (Yaremko) gave it up to me.”

Neither team scored on the power play, combining 0-5 in total. In the first and third periods, there wasn’t a single penalty enforced. In the second period, it wasn’t the amount of penalties that made Head Coach Grant Potulny upset, it was the timing and magnitude of them. MTU senior defenseman Keegan Ford was given a five-minute major penalty for checking from behind, but sophomore Griffin Loughran was called a two-minute roughing penalty for the Wildcats. 17 seconds later, another NMU penalty was enforced, as senior defenseman Phil Beaulieu was called for tripping. 

Despite drawing a five-minute penalty, the ‘Cats never got a chance to be on the power play with its own crucial mistakes.

“Those type of penalties have no business in February and March. I get it in October and November that you have a little emotion, (and) you’re trying to impose your will on the game on some of those, I get that,” Potulny said. “But not now.”

NMU held the Huskies to only 24 shots for the game, and Kent rebounded with 22 saves. Head Coach Grant Potulny has been searching for his team to hold opponents to 20 or less shots, and the ‘Cats were close to that number. The Wildcats played much better defensively on Saturday, but Potulny is starting to see consistency in effort as the season winds down.

“To be honest like we talked last night, I wasn’t upset with the way we played. For now, time in general terms that’s three good ones in a row, so hopefully that’s the start of something,” Potulny said.

The players have also noticed this trend, even while losing some games. But eventually, effort translates to winning hockey games.

“I think we’ve been working hard and stuff, but we haven’t really been getting the result that we wanted,” Craighead said. “And tonight it finally paid off.”

After Friday’s loss, Beaulieu said that his team just needs to get hot at the right time, and this is the type of win that can catapult a team in that direction. With a game that was full of importance, Potulny felt the same way.

“I hope so (that’s it the beginning of getting hot), it was important for us to finish where we finished for all kinds of reasons,” Potulny said. “But the biggest one was that we needed to get another win before we started playoffs. Playing three good games in a row for the most part, should give us a little confidence going in.”

The first round opponent for the Wildcats? None other than the Michigan Tech Huskies. MTU won three of the four games this year against NMU, but the ‘Cats will be riding in with momentum after winning the last one. The last time that these two rivals met in the WCHA Tournament was in 2018, when the Huskies invaded Marquette and won the WCHA championship with a 2-0 win. 

“It’s going to be a good playoff series, we remember what happened our sophomore year (2018), so it’s going to be a good series,” Craighead said.

With another series set to begin between the Wildcats and the Huskies, it only makes sense that it’s of this magnitude. Puck drop of game one of the first round WCHA Tournament series is set for 7:07 p.m. on Friday, March 6 inside of the Berry Events Center.