Three times this season, Northern Michigan has knocked off the No. 1 team in the country.

They’ll get a chance to do it for a fourth time on Saturday night when they take on No. 1 seeded Minnesota State, the nation’s top-ranked team. The fifth-seeded Wildcats defeated fourth-seeded Lake Superior State in a tough three-game CCHA quarterfinal series last weekend in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., for the right to advance to Saturday’s semifinal.

“We’re happy to be moving on,” NMU coach Grant Potulny said. “That was a tough series for us. We didn’t match up great with Lake Superior State when we played them earlier this year, so to be able to move on and get to the semifinals is great. And having a one-game shot makes it much more manageable to prepare for and much more manageable in terms of an opportunity to advance.”

The Wildcats (20-15-1, 12-13-1 CCHA) have had their ups and downs this season but reaching 20 wins and advancing to the Mason Cup semifinals was an important milestone for a team that struggled in conference play.

Much of that was due to injuries and external factors beyond the team’s control. The Wildcats spent a chunk of the season without its full complement of defenseman. And then in January, the team’s series against rivals Michigan Tech was postponed due to COVID-19 health and safety precautions within the Wildcats’ program.

When the series was eventually rescheduled in February, the Wildcats had injuries to two of their three goaltenders (Charlie Glockner and Rico DiMatteo) and had to call in Braden Golisek – a sports communication intern at NMU who was playing intramural hockey at the time – as a backup for a midweek game against the Huskies. He didn’t end up playing in that game – third goalie Nolan Kent did – but it’s emblematic of just what kind of adversity the Wildcats have had to overcome this season.

“Any time you win 20 games, you look at your year, and you say it was a successful year,” Potulny said. “But you look at us this year with the amount of injuries and adversity we had, we got shut down for 10 days because of COVID, all those things combined, I think we’re real proud of the effort .

“That being said, from the first day of practice, we tell the guys, we’re coaching for the end of the year, and that came together last weekend. Hopefully we can come together and have a great effort on Saturday night.”

Potulny knows it will be tough against the Mavericks (33-5-0, 23-3-0), who have only lost five times this season. The good news for NMU is that the Wildcats are one of those five.

The Wildcats beat NMU 4-2 on Jan. 14 in Marquette. CCHA goal scoring leader AJ Vanderbeck scored what turned out to be the game winner in the second period, and NMU was able to hang on despite a furious third period which saw the Mavericks pull to within a goal and outshoot the Wildcats 13-3.

Potulny said the confidence that comes from winning a playoff series combined with the fact that they know how to beat MSU should help them, especially in a one-game semifinal series where anything can happen.

“I think when you win a playoff series, you shed confidence in your group. And the games here (against Minnesota State) showed the step our team made to close the gap,” he said.

The difference this time is that the Wildcats are in Mankato, where they lost 4-2 and 7-0 back in October.

“You have to have a good start. You can’t get run out of the building on the road. And you have to do a great job on special teams and get great goaltending,” he said. “All those things, those are non-negotiable for us to have a chance to win the game. We just hope to still be in the game in the third period, and at that point, you hope your guys make some plays.”

In the other semifinal, third-seeded Bemidji state heads to the Upper Peninsula to take on second-seeded Michigan Tech. The Huskies are No. 10 in the Pairwise rankings and will probably make the NCAAs tournament, but a win over the Beavers would likely seal the deal for sure and make them a lock.

The Beavers, on the other hand, need to win the CCHA tournament to have any shot of returning to the NCAAs for the second consecutive season.

Michigan Tech leads the season series 3-1, including a sweep in Houghton in January – a pair of 5-2 wins. Tech’s Brian Halonen has registered at least a point for the Huskies in all four games this season and has a team-high seven points against the Beavers.

Meanwhile, BSU’s Owen Sillinger scored a pair of goals in the Beavers’ home series with the Huskies in October but Tech was able to shut him down in Houghton, limiting him to just a single assist. Sillinger, who has a team-high 45 points, broke BSU’s single-season Division I points record with his goal against Bowling Green last Friday. Matt Read set the program’s previous record with 41 points in the 2009-10 season.

“They have depth in scoring and they’re a tremendous team. It’s going to be an even game. And I’d rather play them here than in their rink for sure,” Tech head coach Joe Shawhan said of the Beavers. “I’m very fortunate that we were able to lock up home ice. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see another overtime game.”

NHL Hockey Playoffs
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