WCHA RinkRap: Northern Michigan Comebacks, Minnesota State Ascension

College hockey is in the throes of another hectic season, and nowhere could we see that as much as in the WHCA this past weekend. 

Northern Michigan stormed back from two insane deficits, Tom Serratore notched a huge accomplishment at the helm of Bemidji State, and conference powerhouse Minnesota State is ascending the national ladder.

Here’s everything you need to know to catch up from the weekend action.

Cardiac Cats

Coming back from a three-goal deficit in the third period is a rarity, something to remember and celebrate for months — maybe years, depending on the size of the game. 

So when Northern Michigan did it not once but twice this past weekend against a loaded St. Cloud squad, adding to their remarkable comeback against Boston University in October, the feat strained credulity. Three such third-period comebacks by one team, in a month of hockey, taxes the memory bank.

“I do not remember a team that has come back from behind as much as this team has,” said Northern coach Grant Potulny. 

The way the Wildcats salvaged Friday night’s tie from a 3-0 deficit with less than nine minutes remaining in regulation — capitalizing on consecutive major penalties — was an occurrence that no one could recall. 

The circumstances were as follows: St. Cloud was cruising toward what appeared to be a secure victory when Huskies Jack Poehling and Jack Ahcan took major penalties within 17 seconds of each other, creating a 5-on-3 manpower advantage for 4:42, a scenario that dictated no release from the penalty box no matter how many goals were scored.

“That was a first for me,” said a veteran WCHA official who was on the ice for the bizarre sequence.

Operating with ample time and space, the potent Wildcats offense came to life, blasting in WCHA-leading power play markers 10, 11 and 12, tying up a game that now threatened to become unhinged. 

“If you thought I was having a heart attack in Boston, you might want to get the de-fib ready here!” bellowed longtime Cats radio announcer Dave Dennis. 

Dennis then pointed out a water bottle flying onto the ice from the St. Cloud bench. When the ice chips settled after 65 minutes of hockey, both teams had claimed a tie, if not their sanity. 

Twenty-four hours later, Northern struck lightning again in the third period, as Luke Voltin, Griffin Loughran, and Ty Readman all lit the lamp in a two-minute blitzkrieg, tying the game at 4-4. Only one power-play was required this time, and broadcaster Dennis was now treating the extraordinary like business as usual. But there was nothing usual about it. 

There is no database handy to dig up three-goal third-period deficits, but in terms of anecdotal evidence, no one has ever heard of one team doing it three times, let alone thrice in a month. Former Wildcat star Dallas Drake was part of the unforgettable 1991 NCAA championship game, in which NMU and Boston U. both saw three-goal leads evaporate, something that has definitively never happened before. 

“The best college game I was ever part of,” said Drake from Traverse City. “It wasn’t perfect, but the ups and downs were historic.”

Drake could not recall ever needing another three-goal comeback during his stellar career at Northern. 

“We didn’t do it because we were always winning,” he said.

The current “Cardiac Cats’” ability to electrify crowds with their comebacks is not a recipe for success. Their three amazing comebacks resulted in a 1-1-1 record, including this past weekend’s loss and tie to St. Cloud. There’s logic to why Potulny can’t recall teams with so many big-lead comebacks. 

“Teams with the firepower to score three goals in a period were not down by three in the third,” he noted.

300 for Bemidji’s Serratore

Three hundred wins at a single institution represents a meaningful milestone in college hockey, yet Bemidji State’s Tom Serratore tried to downplay the honor after his Beavers dismantled Lake Superior by a combined 12-2 margin this past weekend. 

“The 300th win is fine — it’s a benchmark I guess,” Serratore said. “But we’re 3-1 in the league, we swept at home, and we scored 12 goals in the weekend. I think we don’t want to lose sight of what’s really important.” 

This is the first time Serratore’s Beavers have faced Lake Superior since they were swept out of the WCHA playoffs last March. The biggest difference between the clubs over the past eight months is between the pipes, where Bemidji junior Zach Driscoll has blossomed into an All-American candidate with his .939 save percentage and 1.64 goals against average, while the Lakers’ loss of Nick Kossoff has left his former school scrambling to find a successor.

Mavericks Charge to the Top

For the first time since 2015, Minnesota State is ranked #1 in the USCHO weekly poll. The Mavericks swept a determined Michigan Tech squad up in Houghton this past weekend to propel to the top of the Division I heap. Goaltending is the most important position in hockey, and sophomore Dryden McKay is emerging as the most valuable player in Mankato. His minuscule 1.32 GAA leads all goalies in the nation with more than two appearances.

Another key to the Mavericks' success is their depth — a roster containing 29 players. That translates to intense competition. After coming back from an injury, junior winger Dallas Gerads has handed five assists in the last three games. 

“He plays with an edge,” said Mike Hastings, the ringleader of the most powerful boat in the WCHA. “If you’re in practice and not paying attention, he just might run you over.”

Playing time for the Mavericks is a game of cutthroat musical chairs. Injured top-six forward Jake Jaremko will eventually be pronounced fit to play. Which Maverick will step aside? None of these proud players is going without a fight. Some of the most intense competition in the WCHA takes place Monday through Thursday in practice jerseys in Mankato.

3-Headed Dilemma

Down 3-0 to Minnesota State Friday night in Houghton, Michigan Tech coach Joe Shawhan pulled starting goalie Robbie Beydoun, inserting freshman Blake Pietila. The 19-year-old finished the game a perfect six-for-six on shots and saves. So Shawhan, 1-4 in WCHA games going into Saturday’s tilt, played a hunch and started the teen against the juggernaut Mavericks. The kid found himself in a classic one-on-one pitcher’s duel with the WCHA’s best in Dryden McKay, and it was the freshman who blinked late in the second period, as Minnesota State’s crafty senior waited out Pietila and sniped from an extreme angle. That proved to be the difference-maker in a 2-1 thriller.

Now Shawhan is stuck with a three-fold dilemma in next weekend’s showdown with U.P. rival Lake Superior State: Does he start one of his solid veterans Beydoun or Matt Jurusik? Or does he give 5-foot-11 freshman Pietila his third straight appearance, starting a game that is shaping up as a must-win for Tech? Shawhan was plagued with a similar three-pronged challenge last year. He’s hoping that one of his three goalies will wrest the starting job, get on a win streak, and reduce Shawhan’s stress of filling out the lineup card. 

This weekend’s stakes are extremely high for Tech. A sweep by the Lakers — who are playing at home — would leave Tech 1-7 in WCHA play, making the climb to a top-four position nearly impossible for the Huskies. Fans with tickets for Friday’s showdown at Taffy Abel Arena might consider attending warmups and watching who receives the first warmup shots for visiting Tech. It could have dire consequences for the Huskies season.

"Every place he goes he steps up and takes the starting job," Shawhan said about his freshman puck-kicker. "We're not going to give it to him — he's going to have to earn it."

Tim Rappleye is the author of Jack Parker's Wiseguys: The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice. He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.

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