The season finally in full swing, Alaska getting back to ‘business as usual’ in Fairbanks

Alaska split with Bemidji State on home ice last weekend (photo: Paul H. McCarthy).

After everything that happened in Alaska during the offseason, you can be sure that Erik Largen is relieved to be able to just focus on hockey again.

“It’s kinda been business as usual for us here,” the Nanooks head coach said this week. “It’s been nice to get going with the season.”

Lots of words were written in the offseason about the University of Alaska school system slashing budgets (and potentially the Nanooks hockey program). Also on the table is a proposed new conference featuring seven of the Nanooks’ current WCHA opponents (and not them).

But while that might have been hanging in the air for the Nanooks before the season officially started, it’s not something Largen’s team is dwelling on now.

“We’ve talked about it with them,” Largen said. “For us, we feel good about where we’re at and the future of our program. We don’t have any concerns here. Our guys have all the necessary resources to be successful, and their focus is on their academics and their abilities to develop every day as a player. I don’t think they’ve had to worry about any of that other stuff, and that hasn’t been a focus point at all.”

Perhaps that freedom from worry is the reason behind the Nanooks’ surprising start. At 5-5-0, Alaska already has a signature win over a top-10 team on the road, a WCHA road sweep and are currently sharing the top of the conference standings with Northern Michigan.

Largen contrasted this season’s start — which has featured a win at Penn State, a sweep of Michigan Tech, splits with Bemidji State and Alaska Anchorage and a hard-fought sweep by Denver — with last season’s. The Nanooks started 0-7-1 thanks to an early schedule that had them at Arizona State, Denver and Minnesota State and hosting St. Cloud State.

“Our first eight games we’re 0-7-1 last year, and you’re playing against all teams that made the NCAA tournament that year,” he said. “Of course, you don’t realize that until you look back on the year. This year, we played a number of teams that will make the tournament, but you get a couple wins and you play well, you get some confidence in yourselves and your teammates and it ends up being contagious.”

If there’s one key word for the Nanooks this season, it’s “confidence.” Largen used it a number of times, notably when discussing the much-buzzed-about series at Penn State. The Nanooks had lost 7-0 on Thursday night, but Largen didn’t think the score reflected their play.

“We saw that if we were skating and managing our game against them, we were going to be fine. And in the second game, I thought we played really well,” Largen said. “Us getting the first goal in that game is huge, it gives us confidence, it gives you life right away. And in the third period, when you think there’s going to be a push, we were the ones who pushed on them and responded very well.”

It ended with a historic 4-0 win for the Nanooks that night. The victory featured goals from Colton Leitner, Max Newton and Justin Young and a 35-save shutout from Anton Martinsson, who has played so well this season that he is second in the WCHA in save percentage (.933).

The Nanooks have been successful with a two-goaltender rotation so far, with Martinsson, a senior, and sophomore Gustavs Grigals splitting time in the nets.

“We have confidence in both guys, it’s just been about who’s got the last win, who’s got the last result and going from there,” Largen said. “With Gustavs’ maturation coming in the second year, he’s done a really nice job. And Anton is a senior for us, and he’s been through in a lot of different situations. He’s played a lot of important games for us. He knows he can be successful when he’s playing the game the right way and playing the game he needs to play.”

With such a strong goaltending tandem, to go along with a solid group of offensive contributors, is this the year that Alaska breaks out? The Nanooks haven’t had first-round home ice since 2013-14, their first year in the WCHA. (They also would have qualified for it in 2014-15, but they ended up being ineligible for postseason play that year.)

As of now, Largen says, that’s the goal.

“That’s what we’ve talked about,” he said. “We want to give that opportunity to the Fairbanks community and to our campus. That’s important for our group. That’s our bigger goal, but our smaller one is improving every weekend and getting points every weekend in the WCHA. And so far, so good.”

First loss for Mavs

The WCHA no longer has any unbeatens remaining. You can thank Bowling Green for that.

The Falcons were able to rally from a 2-0 deficit on the road in Mankato and beat Minnesota State 3-2 in overtime on Friday night, handing the Mavericks their first loss of the season.

“Minnesota State is as good a team as there is in the country,” Bowling Green head coach Ty Eigner told the school’s website after the game. “For our guys to come in here and play a good game against them is really important. It’s a great learning experience for our guys and a great opportunity to continue to build on.”

Connor Ford ended up with the game-winner for the Falcons, who are now 2-1 in overtime games already this season.

The Mavericks weren’t down for very long. On Saturday night they earned the split with a 5-1 victory, putting the game away with a three-goal third period.

“It was a good response game,” Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings said. “We’ve had a pretty good record here at home over the last year and at the beginning of this season. You need to go through some adversity. We did, and we wanted to see how it would play out tonight…. When you play a quality opponent they’re going to maske pushes and you have to be able to sustain a lead or defend a little bit.”

The two WCHA front-runners will meet again in mid-January in Ohio. Circle that one.

Wildcats keep streaking

Since losing their season opener to instate rivals Michigan State, Northern Michigan hasn’t been beaten since. NMU is currently 6-1-1, with that loss to the Spartans their only blemish.

This weekend’s series against Alabama Huntsville vaulted them to the top of the conference standings along with Alaska. The Wildcats won 5-3 and 4-2, with WCHA leading scorer Griffin Loughran going off for four points in the series. He has eight goals and four assists through eight games for NMU so far.

“You can’t win the league early in the year, but you can lose it,” Wildcats head coach Grant Potulny told the Marquette Daily Mining Journal after Saturday’s game. “We’ve taken care of business so far and to keep banking points is so important, especially with the way the playoff format sets up. Home ice is paramount and it’s king and the more we get now, the better off we’ll be later.”