Wildcats survive Ferris State comeback for 5-4 win in season opener

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WILDCATS START OFF SEASON STRONG—NMU got off to a great start, and held off Ferris State’s comeback for the win in its first game of the season. The ‘Cats are now 1-0 and will take on Michigan Tech this weekend in a two-game series.

Travis Nelson

After building a 4-0 lead into the second period, the NMU Hockey team halted Ferris State’s comeback for a 5-4 season opening victory on Wednesday night. Nine months off didn’t result in any rust for the Wildcats’ offense, scoring four of its five goals in the first 25 minutes of the game. The ‘Cats’ (1-0) big first period with three goals set the tone, and the Bulldogs (0-3) couldn’t tie it up in the final seconds of regulation.

A blowout win looked to be on the horizon for Northern, but FSU scored two goals in 21 seconds to cut the deficit to 4-2 midway through the second. A third goal with less than five minutes left in the second provided a scare for the ‘Cats, but it was reversed after an official review. In a major momentum swing, senior forward Joseph Nardi scored for the Wildcats two minutes later. The final 15 minutes of the game didn’t go as well as the Wildcats had hoped, being outscored 4-1, but the team will get better, Head Coach Grant Potulny said.

“Like I told the players, there’s no moral victories when you lose, and the same thing goes for a win. Obviously, penalties were something that was concerning for me and it’s an area that has to get adjusted,” Potulny said. “But at the end of the day, going in the game, if you would’ve said that we were going to score five [goals], I would’ve been happy with that.”

Penalties sparked the FSU comeback with two powerplay goals in the third period from senior forward Lucas Finner and freshman forward Mitch Deelstra. NMU had seven penalties to FSU’s three, and the Bulldogs outshot NMU 17-8 in the final period en route to a 30-28 shot advantage. The mistakes have been biting the Wildcats dating back to last season, Nardi said, but it’s something that must be adjusted as Potulny referred to.

“I think it just goes back to last year as well, we took a lot of penalties and that’s something we’re trying to get out of our game,” Nardi said. “When you play good teams that have good sticks, and you’re in the box as much as we are, they’re going to score a lot of goals.” 

Besides getting the win, there were positives to take away from Northern’s season opening game for Potulny. He’s aware of the challenges that his guys had to go through the past few weeks with the team’s COVID-19 outbreak, and teams that have had outbreaks and played their first games have lost each time to teams who had already played, he said. Wishing he would have seen more offensive zone time and continuous team play, Potulny knows that these come along with it being the first game, and he felt that his team was opportunistic on rushes and made good plays. 

Another takeaway was the change in net for the Wildcats, with University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point transfer redshirt junior Connor Ryckman getting the start at goaltender. He saved 26 of FSU’s 30 shots, and his performance left Potulny feeling good about his newest goalie’s first start on the Division I stage.

“At times I thought he looked really good, there were times that we probably let him out to dry. There were a couple shots that were really good shots, a couple high-blocker shots,” Potulny said. “At the end of the game, he made a really important save to close the game out for us. For him, it was his first Division I game and I thought he did well.”

At the end of the day, for a team that preaches taking things day-by-day, the ‘Cats were able to play a game. They were grateful to play, Potulny said, and that’s going to be the outlook on it. It’s been frustrating dealing with the starting and stopping of quarantining and canceled games, but that’s the nature of what sports are right now, he added. The three weeks off of normal schedule brought the team together, Nardi said, and he thinks it contributed to how the team debuted its season.

“I can’t tell how grateful the guys are in our room, to be off for three weeks and not being able to touch the ice and be around each other was really hard on our group,” Nardi said. “But we stuck together, had a lot of Zoom calls, and prepared for this moment today. I think the hard work we put in throught those three weeks paid off and allowed us to get the win.”

Taking things day-by-day means a day off from competition on Thursday before a weekend two-game series with rival Michigan Tech on Friday, Dec. 18 and Saturday, Dec. 19. The Wildcats travel to Houghton for the former, and will host the Huskies for the latter. Northern hasn’t had to look far to find something to be grateful for, but being 1-0 is a good start.