Conventional wisdom says a team that splits on the road then takes care of business at home will be in good shape. The Michigan Tech hockey team has done just that the past two weekends during an otherwise not-so-conventional road trip.
The Huskies traveled over 9,000 miles in 13 days, and while they would have liked to win all four games against Alaska Anchorage and St. Lawrence, Tech already has as many November wins (three) as the last four seasons combined, even with an off week and just one home November series this year.
"You'd like to win all the games, but reflecting ... it was a good trip for a lot of reasons," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "From where we've been to where we are last year to this year, it was a good trip."
Comparisons to last year are quite remarkable across the board. The Huskies have already doubled their win total (8-5-1 in 2011-12, 4-30-4 in 2010-11), and are averaging exactly a goal more per game (3.0-2.0) and allowing exactly two fewer (2.4-4.4) than last year's year-long average. A game hasn't even been played in December and Tech already has five players with at least five goals - only four had five-plus all of last season.
Needless to say, last year was a year to forget for Michigan Tech hockey, but it also carries a pretty cruel memory for Pearson - one he'll have no choice but to recall this weekend. No. 4 Minnesota Duluth, the team that beat Pearson's Michigan Wolverines in the national championship last year, will come to Houghton to take on the No. 20 Huskies in a true benchmark series for the hosts.
"It'll be a little bittersweet knowing that they're the team that denied me a special moment," Pearson said. "They're a good hockey team and I've seen that first-hand, so I've got a good feel for what they're capable of doing and how they play, and that scares me a little."
Pearson said UMD is one of the hottest teams in the country - unbeaten in 10 straight games - and has incredible team speed, very good high-end players and an impressive power play.
"Other than that they're just an average team," joked Pearson, who said Tech will obviously have to be at the top of its game against the Bulldogs.
One thing in Tech's favor, in addition of course to the home environment where Tech is 6-1-1, is a healthy roster.
"This will be the healthiest we've been all year," Pearson said.
Every player on the team is skating in practice, including defenseman Tommy Brown, who has been recovering from an appendectomy in mid-October. He will not play this weekend, but is cleared for contact in practice and has a small chance of playing in the Dec. 16 Northern Michigan game.
Pearson was impressed with Carl Nielsen in last week's St. Lawrence series, coming back from the required inactivity of recovering from a concussion: "I thought Carl was very, very good. I was surprised actually, mildly surprised, because of the time he missed, to jump right back in it."
Tech has also benefited from the consistent play of Josh Robinson, whose 2.07 goals against average and .929 save percentage puts him in the top 15 in the country in both categories - ahead of both UMD's Kenny Reiter (.922) and Minnesota's Kent Patterson (.922), who have appropriately received publicity for leading their teams to the No. 4 and No. 5 rankings, respectively.
In order to pull another upset of a top-five team - Tech took three of four points from then-No. 2 Denver earlier this year - Pearson said high energy has to be the key to practice all this week and playing all 60 minutes both nights this weekend.
Coming off a tough trip and now facing a tough opponent that elicits some tough memories, Tech will need quite an effort to upset a UMD team that outscored them 17-5 in four games last year. Then again, this year's Huskies have not exactly followed last year's conventions.
Stephen Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @steander.