Hockey heads to Bowling Green for first round of WCHA Tournament

HOCKEY+MARCH+MADNESS%E2%80%94The+Wildcats+looking+to+score+against+Michigan+Tech+back+on+Saturday%2C+Feb.+27.+NMU+sets+its+sights+on+Bowling+Green%2C+who+they+meet+in+the+first+round+of+the+WCHA+Tournament.+Travis+Nelson%2FNW

HOCKEY MARCH MADNESS—The Wildcats looking to score against Michigan Tech back on Saturday, Feb. 27. NMU sets its sights on Bowling Green, who they meet in the first round of the WCHA Tournament. Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson

Coming off of two weeks off from action, the NMU Hockey team returns to the ice this weekend on the road against Bowling Green State University. 

The sixth-seeded Wildcats (8-15-1, 6-7-1 WCHA) are coming off the end of the regular season that resulted in a 0-3-1 final four-game stretch. NMU played the third-seeded Falcons just a few weeks on Feb. 20-21, where the ‘Cats earned a shootout win in the first game and a 6-2 loss in the series finale. Northern then went into its final regular season series against Michigan Tech on Feb. 26-27 and lost 6-1 in the first game, and came up just short in a 3-2 overtime defeat in the second game.

Despite losses in three of the final four games and one against its postseason opponent, this NMU team is confident in its play in that stretch. Especially coming off the second Michigan Tech game where Head Coach Grant Potulny was pleased with the ‘Cats’ effort.

“You’re down to four D [defenseman], and you’re killing a penalty, and there’s frustration building. There’s every opportunity for that thing to go south and it didn’t. I told the players after the game and I’ve sat there in games we’ve won and said I didn’t think we played very well,” Potulny said. “Tonight [Saturday, Feb. 27] to me, I don’t care what the scoreboard says, the effort that we got out of everybody was incredible. There’s a lot of positives tonight, a lot. I am very, very pleased with how we played. Now I’m disappointed with the outcome just like everybody else, but that was a great effort.”

Now after a good week of practice, Potulny said, the locker room is in a good spot to pull off an upset over Bowling Green. These two teams have met in recent years in the WCHA Tournament, so it only feels right that they will meet again on the postseason ice.

“I mean last week, especially since you’re not playing, you start the week and you start doing work on Bowling Green first and then you go do work on Lake State and then you think they might be your opponent and then it’s Bemidji,” Potulny said. “And then really until Saturday afternoon, we didn’t know who we were going to play. Interesting that it’s Bowling Green, I was telling the other guys that it’s almost a right of passage for Northern and BG to play each other in the playoffs.”

What is working against NMU is that they’ll have five defensemen out for the first game of the three-game series with the one-game suspension of sophomore Hank Sorensen. Potulny talked about their absence, as it forces only a few defensemen to play a lot more than usual minutes. With that being said, it’ll come down to NMU’s forwards to right the ship and get the Wildcats moving on past the first round.

“Going into the game on Friday is going to be tough, it’s going to be on our forward group. We’re going to have to play in their end and you can’t hope, or expect, to have to defend in our end all night because not only is it going to be hard on Friday with five defensemen, going into Saturday or Sunday, you don’t want your guys to be completely worn down because they’re playing so many minutes. So forwards have got a big job,” said Potulny.

The internal challenges for the ‘Cats are outweighed by the challenges that Bowling Green will bring this weekend. The Falcons are ranked 13th in the nation, and they’re a team that is led by its defenseman. But what is important to remember for the rest of this tournament is that the five teams seeded two [Lake Superior State] through six [Northern Michigan] finished close in the standings and are very comparable as teams. So this means for NMU that they’ll need to play well, Potulny said.

“Their D-core is very good, I think they have the leading scoring [defense] in the country, if not they’re close. Their top line’s very good, their goaltender’s good. But the reality of it is that there’s not much difference in teams 2-6, I kind of talked about that all year,” Potulny said. “It’s really who’s playing better, and to advance you have to be playing great. Whether it’s up here or down there, in Bowling Green or whoever, you have to play well.”

Potulny said that his team should be feeling good headed into the postseason, as they played evenly against Bowling Green for nearly all six periods. Senior captain forward Joseph Nardi feels that way after his team’s performance against Michigan Tech despite the loss. In a different year such as this one, upsets in the postseason could be even likelier.

“100%. It’s a weird year, just making it to the playoffs anything can happen. The way we played tonight [Saturday, Feb. 27], if we play like that we can, it’s not even sneaking up on teams, we’ll be successful if we play that way and have everybody going. Not one part of me is worried and playoffs are the best time of the year and I’m very happy to head in there with this group of men.”

Puck drop for games one and two on Friday, March 12 and Saturday, March 13 at 7:07 p.m. If both teams split the first two, a series-deciding game three will take place Sunday, March 14 at 5:07 p.m. The postseason is here, and the Wildcats are going to try and make some noise.