Grant Potulny knows a thing or two about ending droughts.
Back on April 6, 2002, Potulny, then a sophomore captain for the Gophers, scored 16 minutes, 58 seconds into overtime of the NCAA Frozen Four championship game against Maine, giving Minnesota a 4-3 victory, sending the Xcel Energy Center crowd into a raucous celebration and ending a 23-year national title drought for the proud program.
“What a special time,” Potulny said, “not just for our university, but our entire state.”
Fast-forward 16 years later, and Potulny will try to end a dry patch for the folks in Marquette, Mich. On Saturday night, the first-year Northern Michigan coach and his Wildcats face Michigan Tech in the WCHA championship game at NMU’s Berry Events Center. A victory would give the Wildcats their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2010.
“Obviously, it’s a very important weekend for our team, but also for our program and our community,” the 38-year-old Grand Forks, N.D., native said. “It’s been a little bit of time here since there’s been a team in the national tournament. There’s been excitement around.”
Much of that excitement can be credited to Potulny, who took over a team that went 13-22-4 last season under Walt Kyle and turned it into squad that is 25-14-3 in 2017-18. Picked to finish seventh in the WCHA, the Wildcats instead finished second to a Minnesota State Mankato team that’s been among the nation’s top five for most of the season. On Tuesday, he was named the WCHA’s Coach of the Year.
In the conference playoffs, Northern Michigan twice needed three games to advance, first against Alabama-Huntsville, then Sunday night against Bowling Green in a 3-2 overtime triumph. When Michigan Tech eliminated MSU Mankato 2-1 in overtime Sunday, the battle between the Upper Peninsula rivals was set. The Wildcats will carry a 17-4 home record into the final against the Huskies, and the teams have split four games this season.
“The U.P. rivalry is one of the best I’ve seen, and every time I play them it’s full of emotion,” Wildcats junior forward Adam Rockwood said. “They’re skilled, but they also play hard. … It’s hard to explain. You have to be part of it to know what it’s like to play in it.”
Rockwood is big part of Northern Michigan’s resurgence that has roots in Potulny’s decision to loosen the reins of the offense. The transfer from Wisconsin leads the nation with 40 assists, and his 48 points are tied for sixth nationally. He’s helped junior forward Troy Loggins rank eighth nationally in points (47) and goals, while senior captain Robbie Payne is tied for fifth with 24 goals.
“I’m a playmaker, and Coach put me with Troy Loggins right away, which was a smart move,” Rockwood said. “We’re two guys who are basically designed to play with each other.”
Under Kyle, the Wildcats were a defensive-minded squad. Potulny, a Gophers assistant under Don Lucia for the previous eight years, embraces creativity.
“There’s different ways to play the game,” Potulny said, “and they were built a little bit to play like the New Jersey Devils in the mid-90s when they were winning Stanley Cups, and we want to play more like the Penguins and the Blackhawks.
“We want the guys to be able to have offensive freedom,” he added. “We understand that guys are going to turn pucks over, but as long as they’re working to get that thing back, they’re not going to come back to the bench and get a big earful from us.”
That approach has resulted in the Wildcats improving as the season has progressed. They finished the regular season on a 10-2 run and haven’t allowed more than three goals in any of their six playoff games. Junior goalie Atte Tolvanen is responsible for much that.
The Vihti, Finland, native is 23-9-1 with a 2.25 goals-against average and .906 save percentage, and was named the WCHA’s Goalie of the Year.
Northern Michigan will need that solid play against Michigan Tech, which is 5-1 in its past six games. The loser of Saturday’s final won’t make the NCAA tournament, so Potulny sees no better time to end the Wildcats’ NCAA drought.
“As much as you want to believe this is Year 1 and over the course of the next four or five years you’re going to continually be in these positions, you just never know,” he said. “When you have a good team and you’re playing good hockey, you want to be able to capitalize on it.”
Frozen Four tracker
The NCAA Frozen Four at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center is set for April 5 and 7. Here’s a look hot and cold teams:
Cornell: Big Red is 6-1 in its past seven and 14-2-2 in 2018.
Northeastern: Huskies have won seven straight entering Hockey East semifinals vs. Providence.
Minnesota Duluth: Bulldogs swept Western Michigan by a combined 7-0, have won seven of past eight.
Ohio State: Overtime win over Michigan in Big Ten semifinals gives Buckeyes a solid chance to be a No. 1 seed.
MSU Mankato: Two weeks ago, the Mavericks appeared in line to be a No. 1 seed. But their WCHA quarterfinal series loss to Michigan Tech likely sealed their fate as a No. 2 seed.
Clarkson: Golden Knights rallied to win ECAC quarterfinals over Colgate in three games, but they’re 3-5-4 in their past 12.
Gophers: Bounced from Big Ten tourney March 3, they can only sit and wait as the NCAA bubble keeps getting closer.
North Dakota: Sweep of Nebraska Omaha kept alive the Fighting Hawks’ NCAA tournament hopes, but they might need to win the NCHC Frozen Faceoff to get there.
In our weekly Frozen Focus, college sports reporter Randy Johnson will profile a team each week tracking toward the 2018 Frozen Four in St. Paul. Follow Randy on Twitter: @rjstrib.