This Week in WCHA Hockey: Coming off sweep of Ferris State, Northern Michigan still searching for consistency

Senior forward Joseph Nardi wears the ‘C’ this season for Northern Michigan (photo: NMU Athletics).

Ask Northern Michigan coach Grant Potulny what is the one thing his team needs, and he will give you a simple, one-word answer: consistency.

His Wildcats are fresh off a sweep of Ferris State, those two wins serving as bookends of an eight-game losing streak the Wildcats were mired in just a week ago.

The Wildcats have seen a pair of forwards in junior Griffin Loughran and sophomore Andre Ghantous miss a significant number of games due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols. Sophomore defenseman Hank Sorensen has also missed much of the season, having seen action in just two games.

Add to that the fact that the team missed the first three weeks of the season due to COVID-19 protocols, which cropped up just days before they were set to play their opening weekend, and it really is no surprise to Potulny that his team has struggled to find its game. Once they were finally cleared to play, the Wildcats saw action with three games in four nights before sitting 11 days due to the Christmas break.

With a lack of practice time between games, it made teaching difficult.

Still, there were aspects of their game that Potulny liked over the three weekends prior to last weekend’s series with the Ferris State Bulldogs. The Wildcats came from behind Friday to win 5-4 and twice took the lead Saturday en route to a 5-3 win.

“I thought, to be honest, over probably the past five games, we had played well enough to win, but we couldn’t seal the deal,” Potulny said. “When you put yourself in those positions, and you don’t come out on top, that can get wearing on players and on teams. So to win a couple games this weekend was really important.”

It helps to have Loughran back. He notched two goals and five points on the weekend, sparking the Wildcats’ offense. The WCHA honored him with Forward of the Week honors for his efforts.

Ghantous also factored in with a goal and three assists in the series.

“Last weekend, we did get two of those guys back in Ghantous and Loughran,” Potulny said. “Their impact on the game was obvious, and the impact on the weekend.”

The Wildcats are 4-10-0 on the season, which is far from where their aspirations were coming into the season, but that has not fazed Potulny, who likes where things are despite the team’s early-season issues.

Perhaps the one position where that current lack of consistency shows up most is in goal, where junior Nolan Kent has struggled to match his play from Nov. 22, 2019, on last season. He started 21 of 24 games over that stretch finishing with a 2.87 GAA. This season, his GAA has risen to 3.09.

“Nolan actually had some stretches that he played very well for us last year, and he’s had some stretches this year (where) he’s played very well for us,” said Potulny. “We’re just looking for some consistency out of that position.”

A big reason for that excitement has been the play of captain Joseph Nardi. The senior, who had a breakout year last season with eight goals and 27 points, is off to a great start this season. He leads the team in assists (10) and points (15).

What makes Nardi special, according to Potulny, is the work ethic he carries into every practice and game.

“Joe’s an ‘everyday-er.’ From the moment he’s been a freshman, he gives you everything he has every single day,” Potulny said. “Even if he’s only got 85 percent that day, he’s given you 100 percent of that 85.”

While he is proud of his captain for his on-ice efforts, Potulny is also quick to point out his efforts off the ice as well.

“He’s a great student. He’s a great person,” said Potulny. “If you had 25 Joe Nardis, you’d have the easiest job in the world as a coach.”

With the injuries and COVID-19 protocols adding up to long stretches without top contributors, Potulny and his staff have turned to a group of transfers in sophomore A.J. Vanderbeck, junior David Keefer, senior Brandon Schultz, sophomore Alex Frye, senior Ben Newhouse, and junior Connor Ryckman to fill some of the gaps. Vanderbeck and Newhouse have both established themselves as key pieces of the puzzle.

Vanderbeck is currently tied for first in goals (6) and second in points (10). The 5-foot-11 winger joined the Wildcats mid-season last year, scoring nine points in nine games. What makes him special, in Potulny’s words, is his ability to create offense.

“A.J. is a player that can kind of turn nothing into something because he has such a good shot, and he’s so dangerous with the puck on his stick,” said Potulny. “Some of those guys that you see, at the end of the game, you know the puck’s on their stick. It takes one shot, and it can go on the net.

“That’s what A.J. has the ability to do. He’s got such a heavy shot that any time that he puts it on the net, he’s forcing the goalie to make a good save. That’s what makes A.J. such a dangerous player.”

Faced with a blue line that features a single upperclassman, having Newhouse to lean on has been a boon for the Wildcats. The transfer from Union has 18 career points with Northern Michigan, but it’s all the little things he does that make him valuable and the reason that he serves as an assistant captain this season. For instance, he had nine blocked shots last weekend against the Bulldogs.

“Ben plays in every situation. He’s an elite skater, and he’s in elite shape,” said Potulny. “So he can play a lot of minutes. He had nine blocked shots, and he was a plus-six on the weekend.”

This weekend, the Wildcats face a tough test as they travel to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to face Lake Superior State.

Potulny felt that his team deserved a better fate during their previous series against the Lakers where they fell 4-1 on Friday and 3-2 in overtime on Saturday. With Loughran, Ghantous and Sorensen back in the lineup and more contributions from players like Vanderbeck and Newhouse, he feels it is reasonable to expect better results.

“The last time we did play Lake State, I thought we played a good game, but the game was always just a couple shots away,” he said. “We had a lead going into the third period, a couple goals up, and we just couldn’t get to that third goal. That’s going to be important going forward, finding a way to get to three every night.”

Wells shines against Huskies

Bowling Green Falcons defenseman Justin Wells had a very strong weekend against Michigan Tech. The senior picked up the game’s first goal Friday night just 1:37 into the contest. He followed that up with an assist on the Falcons’ second tally just under three minutes later when Will Cullen extended the hosts’ lead.

Saturday night, Wells had the primary assist on the game-winning goal in the Falcons’ 5-2 win, securing the weekend sweep.

In earning his first multi-point night of his career on Friday and then adding the second assist on the weekend Saturday, the WCHA honored Wells with Defenseman of the Week honors.

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