By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
When the 2018-19 men's hockey season schedule was announced last spring, it would be a safe bet that Grant Potulny's phone started to ring- a lot. Never one to shy away from a challenge, the second-year head coach wanted to push his team to the limit early and often, and he and the schedule-makers did just that. Just a few months removed from a promising 2017-18 season that ended at the hands of Michigan Tech in the WCHA tournament championship game, the Wildcats still found themselves on the outside looking in when the NCAA tournament kicked off last March. Potulny, who experienced plenty of tournament memories as a standout for the University of Minnesota in the early 2000's, didn't like the seat from his living room one bit. He and his staff decided to do something about it. Under the belief that a stronger 2018-19 schedule would not only help his program in the always-important PairWise Rankings come tournament time, but would challenge his squad early so they would be prepared for a tournament run late in the year, the bench boss sought out some of the best non-conference competition in the nation to complement an already challenging WCHA campaign. After all, if you are going to be the best, you have to play with the best.
Fast forward now several months later, Northern Michigan has seen some of the best in its first 15 games. Michigan State, St. Cloud State (the then-No. 3 team in the nation when they tangled with the Huskies in October), Cornell (17th in the nation at the time the Wildcats played them in early November) and, most recently, Notre Dame (the 2017-18 NCAA runners-up were ranked eighth nationally when NMU traveled to South Bend in late November); all these programs appeared on the Northern Michigan schedule in the first two months of the season. When that hellacious stretch finally came to an end; culminating with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Fighting Irish on November 27th, the Wildcats probably felt like they had just finished a month of two-a-day practices. They were bruised, they were bloodied and they were out of breath. But through 15 games (6-9 after the loss to Notre Dame), Potulny's squad wasn't broken- not even close. Instead, NMU was more confident than ever. Having faced several teams that will almost certainly be playing hockey this March, the Wildcats got an early taste of what to expect during the final three months of the season. Now, as Northern skates into the second half of the season - along with every other hockey team in the nation - fighting for conference positioning and their playoff lives, they are doing so having been tested already; and that's exactly what Potulny wanted.
"Anytime you schedule tough non-conference games to start the year, you are always wondering how your team is going to stack up and you wonder how that's going to play into the regular season schedule you have within your league. With the exception of two of the games, I felt that we played really well in almost all of them," explained Potulny, talking about how his teamed faired in their seven non-conference contests. "We were kind of just one play away in a lot of games. Sometimes you worry that's going to affect the confidence of your players going forward; but, the other thing it can do, and I think it did a little but for us, was it takes away the unknown when it comes to where your team is at. Even though you maybe didn't get the outcome you wanted, you feel pretty good about your ability to compete with some of the top teams in the country. I think that's given us some confidence going into our league schedule."
"You have to embrace it. It was Grant's mentality that if we were going to win we would have to beat the best and he decided to schedule that. I think we were excited for the challenge," replied Adam Rockwood, a senior forward and Wildcats' assistant captain. "Going down and playing Michigan State and having that Michigan rivalry, and then playing a really, really strong St. Cloud team; probably one of the strongest teams I have seen in my college career. That was a really tough weekend of hockey in every aspect. I think going through some of those series has kind of been humbling for our team. We had a lot of hype coming into the season and I think it helped us. It humbled us and I think we are better now having gone through that."
It was all a part of the plan.
And there was a lot of hype. In addition to being selected to finish second in the WCHA by the coaches in the preseason coaches poll (picked to finish third by the media), Rockwood and fellow Wildcat senior Troy Loggins were both selected as the preseason WCHA Player of the Year- Rockwood by the coaches and Loggins by the media. In addition, junior defenseman Philip Beaulieu and senior goalie Atte Tolvanen were both selected to the preseason All-WCHA First Team by the coaches and the media. On paper anyway, Northern Michigan was roaring. Add in a top-20 national ranking heading into the first week of the season against Michigan State and the stage was set. For Potulny though, he knew predictions and rankings meant absolutely nothing. Even though the predictions and rankings came out after the 2018-19 schedule was announced, the reigning WCHA Coach of the Year was more focused on planting the seeds that would ultimately grow into a championship (hopefully).
Like with many things, the growing process can be painful at times. Northern Michigan kicked off their season with a series split against Michigan State followed by a sweep at the hands of St. Cloud State. Then after four league games against Bemidji State and Bowling Green (series split), the Wildcats faced-off with Cornell and were swept. Despite playing well the majority of the time, through their first 10 games, NMU was 3-7. The obstacle course was almost finished. After winning three of their next four against Alaska Anchorage and Lake Superior State following the Cornell sweep, the 'Cats finished off their non-conference schedule by traveling to Notre Dame for a Tuesday night showdown in late November.
With an overall record of 6-8 skating into the game in South Bend, and despite playing on short rest - just a few days removed from their weekend series against Lake Superior State - Northern Michigan played arguably their best game of the season at the time against one of the toughest squads in the nation. Even though the Irish skated away with a 2-1 overtime win, looking back on it now, that game seemed to mark a pivotal moment in the Wildcats season. It's true, the setback dropped Northern's season record to 6-9, but the lessons learned from that game - and the ones learned through their first 15 contests - gave Potulny the ammunition he was looking for to build on. He wanted his squad to be challenged and they were. He wanted his team to learn that they could play with the best, and they did. He wanted that confidence to propel the Wildcats into the second half of the season as if there was a rocket attached to each of their skates. It has (so far).
"I felt like for the entire game we stood toe to toe and blow to blow with them. They had a power play in overtime and they capitalized but to me; just the confidence our team took from being on the road and having a game where you are playing on short rest, that was an important game for us," stated Potulny. "It was just a really solid effort from our group and that, to me, was the most telling moment for our team. I remember telling the players, 'okay guys, these guys played for the national championship last year and you just stood toe to toe with them.' Even though you don't get the outcome you hope for, you can gain some confidence from games like that."
Now 9-10 overall heading into the second half of the year and winners of three of their last four and six of their last nine, Northern Michigan seems to have found their game once again- an ominous sign for the rest of the WCHA. Currently fourth in the league standings, the 'Cats are three points behind third-place Minnesota State heading into this weekend's series against Alaska.
Interestingly, arguably NMU's most noticeable shift in play recently has come on the offensive side of the puck. Stacked with a line-up of snipers who have showed a knack for finding the back of the net, Northern Michigan was relatively quiet on offense to start the season, averaging just 1.8 goals per game through their first 15 games. During that first 15-game stretch, the Wildcats scored one goal or less six times. Just to put things into perspective, last year, Northern scored one goal or less nine times all year (43 games). Since the defeat at Notre Dame though, Potulny's squad has been lighting the lamp with authority by scoring 14 goals over their last four games. Taking it one step further, the Wildcats have scored 24 of their 41 total goals over their last nine games. Leading the charge have been the Northern Michigan veterans, including seniors Rockwood, Loggins and Denver Pierce. Loggins, who had one goal and four assists in his first nine games this season, has struck for seven goals and three assists in his last 10 contest, including two goals and one assist over his last four. Rockwood has tallied two goals and four assists since the Cornell series (last nine games) after registering one goal and four assists in his first nine games outings, and Pierce, the Wildcats' captain, has two goals and one assist in his last four contests after scoring two goals and two assists during his previous 10 efforts. Even netminder Atte Tolvanen has gotten into the act by picking up an assist to go along with his goal heard around the world against Michigan Tech.
"I think if you would ask any of our top guys, our veteran guys, I think they would be the first ones to say - myself included - that the start was not the start we wanted, both team-wise and personally. A lot of us kind of found that we have started to find our game at the end of this first half and I think that's really important for us mentally going into the (Christmas) break and how we feel about ourselves and our game," mentioned Rockwood. "Philip Beaulieu had three assists our last series (sweep over Ferris State) and Denver (Pierce) has scored on back-to-back weekends. Troy (Loggins) and (Darien) Craighead almost have 10 goals and Atte is playing phenomenal, so I think there are certain things we have taken from the first half and we are trying to take that into the second half of the season."
"For sure it starts with our goaltender. He's been outstanding. He gives us a chance to win every single night. If you look at his numbers and his statistics, if you take out two of his games, his numbers would be right up there with the top players in the league, and that's a .940 save percentage and 1.69 (GAA). He gives us a chance every night," added Potulny about Tolvanen, the reigning WCHA Goaltender of the Year. "The one thing that was probably surprising was our inability to generate offense early in the year. That's one area I thought where we would definitely be able to generate some scoring chances with our offense and we just haven't. Kind of now, the back half of our schedule, we have started to score. We have had some guys who were maybe gripping their stick a little tight and now we are scoring some goals.
"Expectations have changed and I think sometimes as an athlete, when expectations change and there are some accolades that have been bestowed upon you, sometimes if you haven't been through that before, it can derail things a little," continued Potulny, when discussing the slow start on offense. "I think that to start the year that way, it was unchartered water for a lot of our guys and we had to work through that. The combination of a tough schedule and the hype behind some of the preseason awards, sometimes that can muddy the waters a little bit, and now I think we have come out of that."
Everyone in the Northern Michigan locker room knows that it's about how you finish, rather than how you start. Thanks in large part to their strong early-season schedule, the Wildcats have already gotten a taste of what it's going to take to be the last team standing when the final horn sounds. Make no mistake, with a series of heavyweight fights already under their belt, Northern is ready for just about anything that comes their way. In the end, that was Grant Potulny's ultimate goal all along.
"I think Grant did a really good job of diversifying our schedule and making sure we are battle-tested. I think we bring some things we learned in those early series and we bring them into the WCHA. I think battle-tested is a good term to use," concluded Rockwood. "Not only that, but a large part of our team is coming back and went through a hard-fought and long playoff run last year as well, and I think that's going to help, too. We took two teams to three games and had to gut them out- had to play against a really good Bowling Green team last year and a great Tech team in the finals. We came up short, but all of that experience adds up and the strength of schedule this year helps as well. The second half is just exciting for everyone involved and I can't wait to get back."
Now with their non-conference schedule behind them, and with 16 games left, Northern Michigan finishes the year against all WCHA opponents. After kicking off the 2019 portion of their schedule against Alaska on January 4th and 5th, the Wildcats stay on the road for two more in Alaska against Alaska Anchorage. After that, Northern returns home for back-to-back series against Minnesota State and Bowling Green- both of whom who are currently ahead of the Wildcats in the conference standings.