Hockey has challenge awaiting in CCHA semis against No. 1 Mankato


DAVID VS GOLIATH—NMU forward AJ Vanderbeck shoots a puck against Minnesota State-Mankato on Saturday, Jan. 15. The Wildcats will face the Mavericks again in the CCHA semifinals. Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson, Sports Editor

It won’t be easy, but the Northern Michigan University hockey team is trying to repeat history this weekend with a road game against No. 1 Minnesota State-Mankato with a spot in the CCHA Tournament finals on the line.

A year ago with these same stakes, the ‘Cats were able to pull off a shocker on the road and dominated the Mavericks 5-1 to advance to the conference finals. However, the Mavericks are on a roll right now, winning 13 games in a row heading into this one. But, who was the last team to beat the 33-5 Mavericks? The Wildcats were. On Jan. 14, Northern won at the Berry Events Center, 4-2 and it’s the only time this season that Mankato lost when scoring first. 

The Wildcats have now proven that they can beat the Mavericks in an important postseason contest last year, and have beaten them this year. Both of these teams had to win a best-of-three series in the quarterfinals to get here, as the ‘Cats won on the road against defending tournament champion Lake Superior State in three games, while the Mavericks dispatched eighth-seeded St. Thomas in two games. Now this is one-and-done time, NMU coach Grant Potulny acknowledged how difficult it would be to win two games in Mankato, but you never know with only one.

“I think going into Mankato trying to win two out of three is a very tall task, one game there’s obviously going to be a good crowd and they’re a good team, they haven’t lost since we beat them here,” Potulny said. “Obviously, the task is still tall, but it’s a one-game shot. I think if we can get out of the first period, and have a hockey game, and there’s only two periods, I think we have a chance.”

This format gives the league the best chance to have more tournament teams and gives every team a real chance to win it. It also gives higher seeded teams like Mankato some protection, because losing only one game to NMU for example would be better than potentially losing two for NCAA Tournament purposes. Either way, it’s going to take a solid performance from the Wildcats to take this victory. Potulny wants Mankato to earn everything they get offensively, and it’s going to take earning it for the Wildcats to keep their season alive. The Mavericks are the No. 1 team in the country, so they will be in the NCAA Tournament no matter what. NMU needs this tournament to make it in, so everything will be on the line this weekend.

“Special teams are going to be important, (and) we have to get through the first 10 minutes because they start fast and they start really fast at home,” Potulny said. “I think their forwards are as good as anybody in the country, so we have to limit their rush offense opportunities. Whatever they get, they have to earn, and we’ll have to win the physical battle. Our 12 forwards have to be physical, they have to be fast, they have to play our 12 against their six. Physicality is going to have to be sky-high.”

Puck drop is at 7:07 p.m. on Saturday, and when the stakes are at their highest, Northern’s play is also going to have to be.