Hockey’s heroic late season rally falls flat in WCHA Championship game

CATS+FINISH+AS+RUNNER+UP%E2%80%94NMU+sophomore+defenseman+Michael+Van+Unen+attempts+to+skate+away+from+an+LSSU+Laker+during+Saturdays+WCHA+Championship+game.+The+Wildcats+lost+6-3%2C+ending+their+with+an+11-17-1+record.+Northern+defeated+two+high-quality+opponents+in+Bowling+Green+and+Mankato+to+reach+the+finals%2C+but+the+Cats+came+up+short.+Photo+courtesy+of+NMU+Athletics.

‘CATS FINISH AS RUNNER UP—NMU sophomore defenseman Michael Van Unen attempts to skate away from an LSSU Laker during Saturday’s WCHA Championship game. The Wildcats lost 6-3, ending their with an 11-17-1 record. Northern defeated two high-quality opponents in Bowling Green and Mankato to reach the finals, but the ‘Cats came up short. Photo courtesy of NMU Athletics.

Travis Nelson

The NMU Hockey team was dead in the water just two months ago with a 2-10 record. Things weren’t looking good for the Wildcats, and the season was all but over. However, Northern turned the ship around and battled for the sixth seed in the WCHA Tournament.

In the conference tourney, NMU upset its way over two quality opponents, Bowling Green State University and Minnesota State University-Mankato, to reach the WCHA Championship game for the second time in Head Coach Grant Potulny’s four-year tenure. The Cinderella run came to an abrupt end in that game for the Wildcats in the championship, losing 6-3 to U.P. rival Lake Superior State. 

NMU (11-17-1) showed its teeth by winning five games of a six-game stretch against Lake State, Bemidji State University and Ferris State University in early February. The ‘Cats played like that in this final stretch of the season, ending Bowling Green’s NCAA Tournament hopes and most likely knocking Mankato down from a one-seed to a two-seed in the national tournament. The Lakers with the victory will also join Mankato and Bemidji as the three WCHA representatives in the tournament, and even in defeat, Potulny’s not sure that he would’ve changed anything.

“I think again, you look at the playoffs as a whole. Going into the game, as a coach you go through everything you can and walk back kind of the entire day. What could you have done different? I don’t know that there’s anything we would’ve changed,” Potulny said. “I thought the guys were really loose, I thought they were really motivated. They were alive, they had light in their eyes and I just think that first goal, it was such a fluky weird deal, I think it jammed us up for a little bit. We didn’t get one break to go our way, for sure. And things were just inches too short or inches too far. It just wasn’t our night.”

Sophomore forward Andre Ghantous missed time with post-COVID complications, and still led the WCHA in scoring. There was no question he was the team’s offensive spark down the stretch, and he was able to reflect on this team’s attitude.

“It just shows that we never quit, in that locker room, it wasn’t the start that we wanted into the year and we could’ve easily just thrown in the towel and quit right then and there,” Ghantous said. “We had such a good leadership group with our seniors and we just kept battling.”

The Wildcats ended the season short of their goal of being on the final 16 teams left standing in the country, but NMU not only proved a lot to many down the stretch, but they proved something to themselves.

“We proved to ourselves, beating Bowling Green, beating Mankato, that we could play with anyone. Just fell a little short unfortunately. We’re going to remember this and we’re going to come back to the finals and we’re going to win it,” Ghantous said.

Due to COVID-19, all players gained another year of eligibility. Even though forwards Joseph Nardi and Brandon Schultz and defenseman Ben Newhouse should’ve been done after that game, they could come back next year. Talk about a buzz, having your captains back next year could completely change the program’s landscape. However, there’s still a long way to go before those three make their decisions, Potulny said.

With no doubt freshman goalie Rico DiMatteo will be coming back next year to be the number one goalie, Potulny said, there is an excitement surrounding the program right now with expectations for next year’s team. Potulny didn’t shy away from that in his Zoom press conference on Monday. NMU has had a lot of second place finishes in Potulny’s tenure, but that’s not the goal.

“Here’s the thing, it’s been four years and we’ve finished second four times. Twice in the regular season and twice in the playoffs in the championship game. We have to find a way to get over the hump and maybe the mantra comes from them. You learn things from getting to these games, as players, as coaches,” Potulny said. “To be honest, I think I was much more prepared to prepare them this time around than I was last time around.”

This team went through a COVID-19 outbreak, a long losing streak, many injuries and still ended up playing for a championship. Teams can fold under that pressure, but the Wildcats didn’t. If there’s one thing to remember about this season, Potulny’s thinking about the end of it.

“Just the way we finished. Hey, you go down to Bowling Green and besides our team, how many people thought we could win? We go into Mankato and besides our team, how many people thought we could win?” Potulny said. “And we didn’t just win those games, like we didn’t eke them out. We closed out the series against Bowling Green with a 5-1 win and beat Mankato 5-1. That to me is a representation of what we’re capable of. I think it was good for the players to feel that.”