The lineup that Grant Potulny anticipated putting on the ice this season wasn’t there when Northern Michigan opened its season in mid-December.
It wasn’t there when the Wildcats lost eight consecutive games in January while struggling mightily to find offense, scoring a total of seven goals in those eight games.
The Wildcats’ full lineup wasn’t there, either, when Northern Michigan turned its season around and went 8-6-1 over its past 15 games.
Potulny still won’t be able to put his full lineup on the ice this weekend when the Wildcats come to Mankato for the WCHA semifinals. Sixth-seeded Northern Michigan (10-16-1) upset third-seeded and No. 16-ranked Bowling Green in a first-round WCHA playoff series last weekend at Bowling Green to earn a spot in Friday’s 2:07 p.m. league semifinal game against top-seeded Minnesota State at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center in Mankato.
By now, though, Potulny’s group is fully accustomed to having players out of the lineup. They’ve battled that all season.
“The one thing that’s the same for us is the injuries,” said Potulny, in his fourth season as the Wildcats’ head coach. “From the beginning of the year we haven’t had a game with our full lineup and that continues into this weekend.
“We’ve become so accustomed to it that it doesn’t alter our mindset at all.”
That tough mindset showed through on Sunday, when the Wildcats’ season was on the line in Game 3 at Bowling Green. Potulny and the team found out when they got to the rink that day that junior Griffin Loughran — who led the WCHA in scoring a year ago -- wouldn’t be available due to an injury.
The news rolled off the Wildcats’ shoulders and they controlled play from start to finish in a 5-1 win that gave them a berth in this weekend’s semifinals, along with Minnesota State, second-seeded Lake Superior State and fourth-seeded Bemidji State.
“I think obviously all four teams feel good about where they’re at going into this weekend,” Potulny said. “We had a little tougher road to get there, having to go to Sunday (against Bowling Green), but some of those games when you do feel the pressure of elimination, it changes the way you prepare. Maybe that’s an advantage for us.
“The guys handled that series very well. The emotional roller coaster within those games can determine how your team plays. Our demeanor was excellent the entire day, very even-keel and businesslike.”
Only five players have played in all 27 games for NMU this season, including Second Team All-WCHA senior forward Joseph Nardi, who leads the Wildcats in assists (19) and points (30). Nardi was shut out in back-to-back games in the only meetings of the season between Northern Michigan and Minnesota State this season, on Jan. 2-3 in Marquette. Minnesota State won those games 5-0 and 4-0.
That was the start of the Wildcats’ eight-game slide, but those games might as well have happened a year ago. Northern Michigan is playing like a different team and has the confidence of a title contender.
“(The injuries) have been a major issue for us the entire season, but we have familiarity with injuries and a next-man-up mentality,” Potulny said. “(Friday) will be a tough environment, to play a team like (MSU) in their own rink. We’ll try to play our best game and push all our chips in.”