By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
Last Sunday night, at approximately 11 p.m. eastern time, Jake Jackson received the puck in space and made his move. Tied 1-1 with Minnesota State in overtime, the scenario was as simple as they come. Win and move on…lose and go home. Jackson, who had already scored earlier in the game, knew the Huskies were running out of chances if they wanted to upset the top-seeded Mavericks on the road. With a full head of steam and nearly 20 family members in the stands, the Maplewood, Minn. native made the most of his chance.
"It just ended up being at the end of the game and everyone was tired; they didn't come up and gap up on me so it gave me an opportunity with the puck. It was a good opportunity for me to shoot. The puck had eyes and it ended up in the back of the net. It was awesome," chuckled the junior forward.
It wasn't just a game-winner – it was more than that. Michigan Tech, just one week after taking down Bemidji State on the road in the quarterfinal round of the 2018 WCHA Playoffs, had now eliminated the Mavericks, giving Tech a 2-1 victory along with a series victory (two games to one) over the then-third ranked team in the country. The goal also punched the Huskies ticket to the WCHA Championship game this weekend and kept their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
"It's a really good felling to be able to do that. We have gone through a lot this year; have suffered a lot of injuries and have experienced a lot of highs and lows over the course of the season. Being able to score that goal was awesome for me," added Jackson. "My whole family was there. I had 15-20 people in the stands watching, so it was really cool for me."
Meanwhile, at approximately 9:58 p.m. and nearly eight hours away, Northern Michigan's Troy Loggins was cementing his own name in WCHA lore. Tied 2-2 versus Bowling Green in game three of that series, also in overtime, the junior extended the Wildcats' already historic season by beating Falcons goalie Ryan Bednard with a blistering slap shot from the top of the circle. It was Loggins' 23rd goal of the season. More importantly for him, it offered some much-needed relief after Bowling Green tied the game with eight second left in regulation to force overtime.
Two shots heard around the WCHA from two programs who have had their fair share of success already this season. Now that energy has grown even more, with the knowledge that there is only one game remaining to decide which team will hoist the inaugural Jeff Sauer WCHA Championship Trophy and skate into the NCAA Tournament, and which one will fall short. One game, with so much at stake.
The buzz around this Saturday's championship match-up carries so much excitement that the snow drifts in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are already melting. The game will not only be the fifth time this season Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech will play one another (series tied 2-2), but it pairs two schools who are only separated by 100 miles. It also puts Tech in position for their second-straight conference tournament crown, while Northern Michigan is looking for their first WCHA tourney title since the 1991-92 season, their first NCAA tourney berth since 2010 and their first 26-win season since 2001-02. Typically, you don't label a game a "classic" before the puck even drops, but this might be a rare exception; and both teams know it.
"In my previous job (as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Minnesota) and also as a player (with the Gophers), I played in this type of game against North Dakota in the WCHA Championship game and then as a coach, we played against North Dakota in a couple regional finals," remarked Northern Michigan head coach Grant Potulny, whose team is currently ranked 16th in the Pairwise (which means a win over Tech is needed to advance to the national tournament). "When you look at college hockey and the all-time rivalries, you have Boston and Boston College, Denver and CC (Colorado College), Michigan and Michigan State, Minnesota and North Dakota and I think you have Northern and Tech; I think it's right up there with the elite rivalries in college hockey. I do have some past experience on that, and you have to pull from your prior experiences."
Experience sums up Northern Michigan very well. As does depth. Guided by the 2017-2018 WCHA Coach of the Year, the Wildcats have been grabbing headlines all season thanks to depth throughout their line-up and their junior goaltender – who has had no problem standing out all on his own. First, the balance. Potulny will be the first one to tell you that he wasn't exactly sure what to expect when the team hit the ice for the first time this past fall. He knew what the numbers said on paper, but notations in a notebook doesn't win hockey games. It didn't take long for Potulny to realize he had won the lottery. From top to bottom, everywhere he looked, his team had the exact balance of character and talent he was looking for.
While it took some time to adjust to a new system, by Christmas, the Wildcats were roaring. After going 8-8-2 through their first 18 games, Northern Michigan went 13-4-1 over their next 18; good enough for a second-place finish in the WCHA and a two-seed heading into the league tournament. The Wildcats also finished second in the league in scoring, averaging over three goals per contest. Individually, NMU has five players in the top 14 in overall WCHA scoring, including Adam Rockwood and Troy Loggins who are currently first and second, respectively (Rockwood 48 points, Loggins 47). In addition, senior Robbie Payne is tied for the overall league lead with 24 goals scored, Rockwood has a NCAA-best 40 assists (most by a WCHA skater since the 2011-12 season) first in assists, Loggins paces the league in shorthanded goals (and shorthanded points) and sophomore Philip Beaulieu is tops in scoring among defensemen.
"You just don't know your team until you get here. There were a lot of players I wasn't familiar with. You are not sure what to expect out of your group. You know what your individual expectations are, but you're just not sure what you have until you get on the rink and see the personnel that you have. Within probably about two weeks of being on the rink I thought you know what, there are some very good players here," recalled Potulny. "We had to continue to strive to be consistent. We played a tournament in Las Vegas (Ice Vegas Invitational) and that was kind of disjointed for us because of the travel, but when we came back from that trip, we won nine or 10 in a row and you could see the consistency starting to grow in our group. Then, all a sudden, you are expecting to win every game. You overtake first place in the league in January and then there is even more of a drive and hunger behind you because you are getting rewarded; the guys are getting rewarded for their efforts in practice and in the game. At that point as a staff, we knew we had a pretty good team. "
On the other side of the rink are the Huskies, who seem to be peaking at just the right time. Plagued by injuries throughout the season, head coach Joe Shawhan – another first-year bench boss – almost remembers the exact moment when his squad found its mojo.
"We got beat up pretty good by Bowling Green maybe five or six weeks ago (February 2nd). We had a very depleted line-up. We actually didn't have enough players to dress on that Saturday night because of injuries and things. A bunch of guys were getting big minutes. We had really our top scoring line from the first half of the season out in (Alex) Smith, (Brent) Baltus and (Jake) Jackson – they were all out with injuries. Mitch Reinke was out with an injury. Mark Auk got hurt; he was an all-league pre-season pick and is a 30-point defenseman for us this year and is a great player. We were beat up pretty good and we went into that Saturday night game and put forth a real gutsy effort and the guys challenged themselves and we turned it around (with a 4-0 road win)," replied Shawhan. "The guys started to gain confidence. Our depth was taxed and players had to step in and did a great job for us. The mood of the team was really good, and our goaltending was forced to step up, and they did."
In total, the trio of Baltus, Smith and Jackson missed a combined 16 games due to injury from early January through late February. Reinke missed another nine. The Huskies didn't have their full complement of players to play with until the postseason kicked off two weekends ago on the road against Bemidji State. Still, even while operating well-below full strength, Tech managed to play .500 hockey since January. They also began to develop an identify (more than they already had) of playing hard-nosed hockey – especially late in games, which was a good sign for any coach heading into the playoff season. For a team that had battled through just about anything and everything all season long and coupling that with their experiences from a season ago, staying calm under pressure is a critical component when factoring in the difference between a win and a loss.
"We were all a little bit out of sorts for a while. We weren't playing together and now for the past couple weekends, we have been playing together and I think that helps a lot for all three of us when it comes to our confidence and being able to make plays and score some goals," explained Jackson, when talking about his line-mates and the Huskies top scoring line. "We didn't have a ton of expectations going into the playoffs. As a team we did, but from the outside looking in, I don't think a lot of people had super high expectations for us coming into the playoffs just because of the way the year transpired. We have three lines that can score and four lines that can play and eat up minutes; three sets of D that can play and three goalies who can play. Really it's all about putting it together at the right time. Everyone is healthy now so now it's just a matter of keeping it going."
"If you look at us, we played in the Icebreaker Tournament and we were fortunate enough to win that in Duluth. Then we played in the GLI (Great Lakes Invitational) and lost in the championship game. Then we played in the Las Vegas and played nationally-ranked Boston College and were able to beat them on a Friday night before losing in the championship game," commented Shawhan. "Our guys have been in positions where they have had to perform in order to move on or advance; not to the point where the season was going to end but still, feeling that environment and learning how to stay calm in that environment is something they have gone through.
"We have been in situations in the past where the upperclassmen have experienced this type of thing before, so it does play a big part in it I think. Then you get into the character of the room and the character of the guys, the fact that they have been playing through injuries and things like that. These players have done a great job and have stuck with it. They have been challenged in a lot of ways and have been phenomenal in how they have responded and matured. We are really happy with the guys we have here."
It's going to be a classic.
"Our key to success is finding a way to be successful in their rink. They are a great home team. We have split with them this year but we have both won games on our own rinks. They have an Olympic ice sheet which you don't see a lot of. We have played on that type of surface recently, but that's one of the biggest things for us – their home-ice advantage," remarked Shawhan. "I'm not talking about the crowds, I'm talking about the way they play and how their personnel fits playing in that rink – and it fits very well. They have put the right guys in the right situations to have success. They are extremely well coached. Throughout their line-up they have the right players in the right spots."
But wait…while Northern has been dynamite at home, Tech has made their most recent noise on the road. In the first round of the playoffs the Huskies traveled to Bemidji State and disposed of the Beavers in two games. Last weekend, their performance knocked off the top-seeded Mavericks, holding the league's top offense to five goals in three games. If you thought the home-ice advantage was going to be the difference; while the preference for every team would to play at home, in this particular situation, it might not mean what you think.
Then there is the goaltending discussion. No doubt, when you talk about the difference a goalie can make, Northern Michigan's Tolvanen quickly becomes your case study. Selected as a First-Team All-WCHA goaltender, in his three previous games against Tech this season (2-1), the junior has stopped 69 of 73 shots to go along with a shutout. Both head coaches know that a goaltender can make all of the difference in the postseason and when a championship is decided by 60 minutes of hockey (and possibly a little more given their track records), the performance of that goaltender when the tension in the rink is at its highest makes all of the difference. Just as an example, thanks in large part to Tolvanen, the Wildcats skate into this Saturday with a record of 11-5 in one-goal games this season. Once again, on paper, the Wildcats seem to have the advantage.
"There are moments in a game when you need a great save and obviously Atte has stood tall all year in those situations. We also have some really mentally tough players," stated Potulny. "You give up a goal with eight seconds left in the game (against Bowling Green last Sunday) and we were still able to find a way to win in overtime. I think it speaks to the toughness of our group. Nothing shakes them. They are methodical about their business. We try not to get too high and too low and we manage our emotions the best we can on the bench, and I think that's why we have been successful in those tight games."
Over the past several weeks, something has happened within the program that has helped the Huskies' recent surge, and in the process, has put a gigantic smile on Shawhan's face. Michigan Tech has gotten some all-league goaltending on their own, only in this case, it has come from two different netminders. Over Tech's last ten games the Huskies are 7-3. During that time, while senior Devin Kero has gotten most of the work (5-3), junior Patrick Munson played the last two games in Mankato and has been phenomenal. Tech won them both (last Saturday and Sunday night). In those two games, Munson allowed just three goals on 75 shots.
"Atte Tolvanen is one of the top goaltenders in the league. If our guys are even mentioned in the same sentence as him, that is something to be proud of. With that said, we are incredibly proud of what they have done down the stretch. There has been a lot of questions and criticism. I haven't been easy on them and have challenged them to be better and uphold a certain standard and to expect more out of themselves. They have done an incredible job during this most recent run, from the Bowling Green series all the way through these playoffs. I don't think anyone has had better goaltending than we've had," stated Shawhan, himself a former goaltender. "I am the first guy to tell them that while I've challenged them, I couldn't be prouder of where they are and what they have accomplished as a group. All three of them (Kero, Munson and Robbie Beydoun) have been the guy at some point during the season and I would feel comfortable with putting anyone of them in this championship game. It's a position where early on in the year it was considered to be somewhat suspect, but it has really turned into a strength of ours."
Cross that off the list.
The two teams are so evenly matched that when dissecting the special teams facet of their games, even that will lead to more questions than answers as to who is going to win. During their first three matchups this season, both squads got plenty of opportunities on the power play but never were able to capitalize. Northern had 15 extra-man chances, only scoring two power-play goals. Meanwhile Tech went 0-12. Then during their most recent contest (February 24th in Houghton), all five goals scored in the game were on the power play. Northern Michigan netted two power-play markers and the Huskies scored three.
So, when numbers don't tell the story, it all has to circle back to experience. In the playoffs it often does. In the Northern Michigan locker room, when discussing the power of the known compared to the fear of the unknown, it starts and ends with their head coach. While his squad has not played in a championship game of this magnitude, Potulny has – several times. It's something that he recognizes, and when possible, offers advice on the excitement his players are feeling and the emotions that go hand-in-hand with the game they are about to play.
"I think you have to look back at your life experiences. I have been fortunate to be through these types of situations before. You know when things went well and you know when things might have needed to be adjusted; that's your job to try and help steer the group. At this point I think our team has matured to the point where they are ready for the challenge. They are prepared to take that step. We are going to be with them along the way, just helping them a little bit, but this is a player's time of year," replied Potulny. "I have talked about it; I still have a lot of player in me. Any time that we talk to the team or during any of the video sessions we go through, I try to look at it through the players' eyes still. That resonates more. As a coach you can say certain things and sometimes it sticks. Now, this is the best time of the year to be a player and I'm excited to sit back and watch our guys this weekend."
"He has a real calm demeanor behind the bench. He's been through all of this before and I think everything he does feeds into us in the fact that we never get too high or too low," added Loggins, when asked about Potulny's influence. "We are always expecting to win now. He's a great coach and has been a really big part of turning this program around. The community is definitely going crazy for this game and it's getting us even more fired up than we already were. I think we are looking at it as just a championship game and we know we have to come in with a lot of energy and be ready for whoever the opponent is, but even more so with Tech."
"It's going to be different just because it's going to be in Northern and it's not going to be in front of our home fans. The atmosphere last year was insane just because of the way the game went. I think guys are going to be able to settle into the game after the first couple minutes; it's not going to take a period or anything like that, just because we have been through it once already. We have already played through an overtime winner (this year) and a double-overtime winner last year, so we have pretty much gone through everything up to this point. I think that's really going to help us out," stated Jackson. "But with that, you are still never really going to be comfortable because it's always going to be a different situation; things are going to happen, and we are going to experience different things throughout the course of the game and have to adapt to it as it goes."
"We just try to put the emphasis on the moment and trust our units of five and try to rely on our culture and our work ethic. There is a great saying that I say all of the time on the bench and in the locker room – 'you don't rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training,'" commented Shawhan. "We want guys to take our daily activities important so when the time comes we take advantage of it. Guys aren't going to miraculously step up and become super heroes. Sometimes you run into a situation where everything falls into place for an individual but as a whole, you sink to the level of what you are.
"What you want is to be a team that doesn't beat itself and that relies on each other and when the going gets tough; plays as a group instead of falling apart. Our focus is not on any one game being more important than the other. The important thing is being exposed to environments where you have to perform and doing what you need to do when given the chance."
So what have we learned? Two evenly matched rivals who seem to be playing their best hockey of the season at just the right time. One game. One championship trophy. One ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
It's going to be a classic. Get ready, Upper Peninsula – history is about to be made.