Northern Michigan’s second-year coach Grant Potulny is the one of the most dynamic young hockey coaches in the nation, and he has his Wildcats peaking as they head into the playoffs. FloHockey’s Tim Rappleye caught up with the WCHA’s reigning Coach of the Year after the Wildcats’ impressive home-and-home sweep over Michigan Tech.
FloHockey: Coach, impressive weekend, your best players making the best plays, the Berry Center looked pretty pumped up.
Grant Potulny: It was a great weekend, obviously going up to Houghton and winning on the road against a real tough Michigan Tech team is a tall task. To come home and complete the sweep for the first time in seven years was a big moment for our players.
Flo: I noticed at the end of game one in Houghton, Adam Rockwood had a certain goal into an empty net, and he fed Troy Loggins instead for his hat trick, and your team exploded. Did you take note of that?
GP: Absolutely. No. 1, to have the recognition to know that the guy’s close to a hat trick, and then to feed him back for the empty net is such a selfless play. When you see things like that happen within your team, you know you are on the right path. Our guys are coming together at the right time.
Flo: Wildcats’ alum Dallas Drake commented that you need your best players and leaders to be exactly that. Atte Tolvanen and Troy Loggins seem to be carrying you guys now.
GP: You need that at the end of the year; we talked within our program that you need a couple of guys to be “Mr. March.” It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the regular season, or how you feel your year’s gone, it’s kind of a fresh start. Troy, Adam and Denver [Pierce], that line has been outstanding. Troy has seven goals in three games, Adam was Player of the Month. When your top seven or eight guys are beating the other team’s top guys, it sure gives you a good chance to win.
Flo: The at-large bid to the NCAA’s is no longer part of your equation. Are you OK knowing you have to win a championship to get in?
GP: Yeah. There’s nothing you can do about outcomes that happened earlier in the year. It’s a true testament to the leadership of our team, their ability to hang with the coaches and trust in the process. It’s not easy. There’s preseason accolades bestowed on your team and individuals, and when your year doesn’t start out the way you hoped, there’s a real possibility of derailment there. I feel like our players really hung in with us. I give a lot of credit to our captains, they’ve really been the glue, and Denver Pierce is our glue guy that kept us together. Now we’re coming out the other side and playing our best hockey at the most important time. The confidence that a team can get from a little bit of a run can be infectious throughout the rest of your team.
Flo: This past weekend you were demonstrative behind the bench, very competitive in your own right.
GP: Sometimes I think it’s important that the players know you’re fighting for them. I’ve told them that I’ll talk to the officials and they know that it’s not their job. But it’s a fine line. You can’t be over-emotional either because your guys become over-emotional. At times, you probably get more emotional than you would hope; we’re all competitors, too.
Flo: Based on the last two weekends, you are kings of the Upper Peninsula. That’s got to give you some confidence.
GP: It does, and there’s real quality opponents. We don’t have the ability to play some of the teams downstate, it’s hard to be the state champion, but it’s really important to try and be the champion of the U.P. It’s almost like a run in any other sport, you’ve got to come out of your area first.
Flo: Second place guarantees you home ice at least until the championship game. Based on how you’ve been playing at home, that’s got to be an important accomplishment.
GP: Every time you come out to the Berry there’s over 85 percent capacity; going into the playoffs I expect it to be almost a sold-out building every night. You start to hear other coaches talk about how hard it is to come into the Berry. That gives you a real home ice advantage. Last year it went to overtime against Bowling Green on Sunday night. I think that being home, and the rest and recovery and all the things you can do in your own building, gave us an advantage as the series went on. That’s the value of finishing second, you get to stay home through the second round.
Flo: The CHN super-computer has projected your chances of winning the Sauer Cup at 12 percent. Based on your celebration Saturday night, it appears that you think you have a better chance than 12 percent.
GP: Yeah we do. The funny thing about playoffs is, you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Last year our team had its sights set on surviving and advancing and then packing up and going to Minnesota State to try and win a game. Obviously, that didn’t come to fruition, we ended up hosting here. As funny as it sounds, I think it derailed us a little bit because in our mind we had a path we were going to take. You just have no idea what’s going to happen in the outcome of these other series. You have to live in the moment. Our biggest challenge is advancing through Alaska, and after that you have no idea who you’re going to play. There could be multiple different opponents.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.