The Michigan Tech hockey rebuilding effort is off to a good 2-0 start, but the Huskies know all too well the importance of building off that start. Tech started 2-0 last year as part of a five-game unbeaten streak (3-0-2) against what could rightly be called lesser competition - at least in comparison to most of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association teams - but then won only two games the rest of the year.
It's not entirely fair to compare this year's team to last year's, but Tech knows No. 18 Wisconsin, which comes to town this weekend, is just the start of a challenging WCHA schedule. The Badgers beat Tech all four times last year, three times by three goals.
"They're young, but they're still a very talented team. They have a nice blend of speed and skill and size," Tech head coach Mel Pearson said. "... Nobody is giving us a chance, but I don't mind the underdog role."
A full preview of this weekend's series will come later this week, but the Huskies are focusing on what they have to correct after an important evaluation series against American International.
According to Pearson, the Huskies' penalty kill was poor on Friday and much better Saturday, exactly the opposite of the power play, which went 3-for-4 Friday and 0-for-8 Saturday.
Pearson was not particularly pleased with the energy of the team in Saturday night's game, but acknowledged some more progress in understanding playing in new systems. With 41 shots Saturday, the offensive production was decent, and AIC netminder Ben Meisner prevented Tech from getting more out of those shots. But, Tech knows similar situations will happen in the WCHA, which is why the emphasis this week is on defense.
"That's what we stressed in our meeting (Monday): defense, defense. Some nights it's not going to go in for you offensively, but you can always play good defense. That's just mental character and toughness and willing to pay the price in your own zone," Pearson said.
The Huskies also know taking fewer penalties will ease the pressure on the defense and allow the offense to get in a better rhythm. The coaching staff showed the team all the penalties from Saturday, none of which prevented a goal. Less time in the box will be key for Tech to succeed.
Pearson will likely have line combinations ready to go for the weekend by today, but Monday's practice featured a return to the B. Pietila-Olson-Baker line and quite a bit of shuffling throughout the lineup. Milos Gordic will still be out this weekend, but everyone else is healthy.
"Early in the year we're going to be ... changing things quite a bit both on forward lines and defensive pairings," Pearson said.
The Huskies hope for two more large crowds Friday and Saturday night as the real test begins in the always-tough WCHA.
Huskies move on from SVSU game
Michigan Tech football senior defensive back Chet White said Saturday's 44-41 overtime loss to Saginaw Valley State "probably hurts worse than any loss I've ever been a part of."
After rallying from down 21-0, the Huskies tied the game up twice in the final minutes of regulation, only to see the hard work result in a gut-wrenching loss. The feeling on the field afterwards was somber to say the least, and yet, the Huskies are faced with the challenge of preparing for an opponent that beat SVSU, knowing that one more loss will all but eliminate the chance at a postseason berth.
"I think our kids will practice well and play hard (this) week. We know the team coming in (this) week beat the team we played (Saturday), so we know we have our hands full," head coach Tom Kearly said after the loss to SVSU.
In a sense, sometimes a blowout loss can be easier to swallow. Throw away the tape and move on. Tech fans can only hope last Saturday's loss isn't the nagging variety that proves difficult to overcome.
"There aren't any breaks anymore. It's not like there were any breaks this is the GLIAC but there just aren't any breaks and we have to come out ready," said White, one of 10 seniors on Tech's starting defensive unit that was ranked seventh in the country before last Saturday.
Of course, the Huskies had plenty of bright spots in the loss. Quarterback Tyler Scarlett was terrific, two running backs tallied 60-plus yards and kicker Garrett Mead converted two clutch field goals (even though he missed one earlier in the game).
And it shouldn't be overlooked what Hillsdale went through last week either. The Chargers, who were previously unbeaten in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, were up 12 points with 5:33 remaining when Ohio Dominican (the same team Tech beat 35-13) returned a fumble for a touchdown and then scored on offense with 1:26 left to win 43-42.
With both Tech and Hillsdale coming off heartbreaking losses, Saturday's game in Houghton should be fascinating to watch, seeing which team has the mental fortitude to recover and stay near the top of the standings, and which team starts a losing streak that could be hard to stop.
Stephen Anderson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @steander.