Wildcats Shock No. 1 Minnesota State & Lake Superior State Finds A Lifeline

In this week’s Rinkrap, WCHA hockey fans saw a pair of crucial wins in the Upper Peninsula, a goaltender waking the echoes of legendary Ken Dryden, and another German force asserting himself in Mankato.

What a difference a day makes. Northern Michigan’s season appeared to be hanging by a thread going into Saturday night’s game against national No. 1 Minnesota State. The Wildcats had lost five out of their previous six games, and in Friday’s disheartening loss, Northern coach Grant Potulny ran through all three of his goalies in a fruitless attempt to rein in the galloping Mavericks. The Cats found themselves in a virtual must-win game heading into the holiday break.

“There’s a big difference between looking at 8-8-2 and 9-7-2 and beating the best team in the country,” junior defenseman Ben Newhouse said to Ryan Stieg of the Mining Journal. “They’ve been dominating teams the entire year.” 

In a stark reversal of fortune, Northern Michigan found a way to defeat first-place Minnesota State in Saturday’s series finale, and Potulny appears to have found his mainstay between the pipes. It started with some video homework followed by an apology for pulling sophomore goalie Nolan Kent in the first period Friday night. 

“From the bench, I didn’t like how those goals looked,” Potulny said. “They were middle-of-the-net goals.” 

But between games, Potulny studied video from a special coaches’ camera with a different angle. He realized how badly Kent had been screened: “Our guys got five-holed; he couldn’t see either of them [two goals allowed].” Coach sought out his maligned goalie with hat in hand.

“I actually apologized to him,” he said. “Seeing that vantage point, it was clear that he was the guy to go back with.”

Kent made good on Potulny’s confidence, repeatedly stoning the league’s highest-scoring team in Saturday’s 4-1 win. Kent’s excellence had Potulny reminiscing about his legendary NMU predecessor in the post-game. 

“He made saves at really important times to allow us to get back into it. We talked about that with Atte (Tolvanen) a lot. He’d make that really important save at a really important time, and Nolan did that tonight.”

Kent’s 30 saves on 31 shots propelled his save percentage just over the .900 “Mendoza Line,” still a good 20 points below the WCHA’s elite goalies, but it’s a return to respectability. Northern finds itself in sixth place in the WCHA, yet only four points below second place Bemidji. Kent’s Cats open the new year at Bowling Green, where they face another nationally ranked WCHA powerhouse. The goaltending duel between Kent and the Falcons Eric Dop should help define the balance of power in the WCHA.

Lakers Stanch the Bleeding

Three hours east of Marquette, another WCHA squad desperate for a win — Lake Superior State — dished up a rare Holiday treat for their forlorn fans: a win over a ranked opponent. One point away from falling out of a playoff position, the Lakers got clutch performances from senior Max Humitz (two goals), goaltender Mareks Mitens (29 saves), and junior wingman Hampus Eriksson (OT thriller) to defeat then No. 10-ranked Bowling Green, fattening up a four-point cushion in the standings over ninth-place Alaska Anchorage.

Other than a hiccup in the middle stanza in which Bowling Green outshot (13-9) and outscored LSSU (1-0), the Lakers turned in a gutty performance to claim the vital three points. 

“The second period was kind of a dog, but the rest of it was entertainment deluxe!” exclaimed radio man Bill Crawford after calling the overtime winner from Eriksson. 

The game-ending play was college hockey’s version of “The Beautiful Game,” beginning with an 80-foot pass from sophomore defenseman Jacob Norqvist directly onto the tape of sprinting wingman Brayden Gelsinger, who was in full stride as he crossed the blue line. At the bottom of the circle, Gelsinger feathered a backhand feed directly onto the blade of the trailing Eriksson, who overpowered BGSU goalie Dop. 

Three seconds of perfect hockey, covering 150 feet of ice, resulted in three points in the WCHA standings for the home team Lakers. It’s a play that can be studied and admired repeatedly, like a classic piece of art. 

Sadly for the Lakers this year, Saturday was an aberration. Their season to date is one of unrealized expectations. They have already suffered 15 losses, more than any other WCHA team to date.

Puck Droppings

  • Princeton transfer Austin Shaw is enjoying his “second life” up at Ferris State. He picked up a tie and win this past weekend over Alabama Huntsville, shrinking his goals against average to a career-best 2.38. He has appeared in seven games this season, after only 10 in his prior career at Princeton.
  • FloHockey asked Grant Potulny if MSU’s Dryden McKay was the next coming of Ken Dryden: “If you look at the landscape of the year, he’s only given up more than one goal twice all year. He’s having a great year, he’s a great goaltender.” For the record, Potulny’s Wildcats beat McKay’s backup Jacob Berger Saturday night. McKay has lost but a single game this season — to BGSU on November 1.
  • Midway through Friday’s game in Marquette, Mavericks coach Mike Hastings shifted German sophomore Julian Napravnik onto a line with seniors Parker Tuomie and captain Marc Michaelis, creating an all-German unit that wreaked havoc on Northern Michigan. Minutes after the mashup, Tuomie fed Napravnik in the attacking zone, who then knifed a 20-foot backhand into the back of the net. Getting to play with his Deutsch mates is a big deal for Napravnik: “It’s the best news for me personally, to play with my fellow countrymen. It’s always nice.” Said Tuomie: “He’s got a really good backhand. I’ve seen him do it a lot in practice.” When Tuomie and Michaelis graduate this spring, they are confident that the Mavs power play will still have a German accent: “Julian can really play anywhere, any position. We’re going to leave this program in great hands with him.”

Ryan Stieg of the Mining Journal contributed to this report.

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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