HOUGHTON - Starting off the regular season on a good note should be plenty of motivation for Michigan Tech in its home-and-home series with Lake Superior State tonight and Saturday, but the Huskies also want to make a statement against the Lakers for beyond just this year.
LSSU, now a member of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, will be joining the Western Collegiate Hockey Association next season as a result of major conference realignment all across college hockey.
An Upper Peninsula rivalry is reborn.
"There's no question it's good to start setting the tone at this point to go (to Sault Ste. Marie) and play well, and we want to let them know coming to Houghton is going to be a tough trip," Tech coach Mel Pearson said.
Even with a clean slate on the 92nd season of Tech hockey, it's not too early to consider the potential end-of-the-year ramifications of these non-conference games.
"It's huge. They can be more important than your league games because of RPI, ratings and who beat who, common opponents," Pearson said.
"They're very big because (LSSU is) going to play some good teams in the CCHA and probably beat them. We need to beat them twice to help our resume down the road."
But the Huskies certainly know it won't be easy tonight to skate off the small ice sheet at Taffy Abel Arena with a win against a Laker squad that was 11-6-1 at home last year.
Tech will have to overcome one particularly daunting roadblock: goaltender Kevin Kapalka, who was his team's most valuable player and garnered All-CCHA honorable mention as a sophomore last year.
He already has 29 career wins, a .920 save percentage and a 2.52 goals-against average.
Tech will have to get him moving laterally, take advantage of the rebounds that Kapalka is known to surrender and generate traffic in front of the net, which in itself will be challenging against the Lakers' experienced and sizable defense.
"They've got an MVP goalie, so right there they're in good hands. They have five returning defensemen. They'll play strong defensively. That's their MO right now," Pearson said.
The Huskies tallied 47 shots and six goals against Brock University in last Saturday's exhibition game, and while scoring will likely be at much more of a premium against LSSU, Brock's large, physical defense was a good tune-up for Tech.
Offensively, Tech will get a boost by welcoming back junior forward Jacob Johnstone, who suffered an ankle injury a week before the Brock game. Initially the team thought he may be out for a month, but he skated in Tuesday and Wednesday's practices (the team had Monday off) and made the trip.
Offensively Tech is leaving behind forwards Daniel Holmberg, Chad Pietila (who may be ready Saturday after nursing a groin injury), Patrick Anderson and Aaron Pietila (who is sitting out a two-game NCAA-imposed suspension for participating in a senior tournament).
"It's obviously an away game, so we're going to go into their barn and play and you have to play solid defensively, not give up any goals and take advantage of your opportunities," said forward Ryan Furne, who led Tech with 12 goals last year. "I think if we don't get two wins out of (the series) it'll be a disappointment for us."
Tech feels good about its veteran defensive unit as well, and the Huskies left behind blueliners Walker Hyland, Jimmy Davis and Tommy Brown.
"They have a couple dangerous guys in (Domenic) Monardo, (Nick) McParland and Kellan Lane," Pearson said. "They're like a lot of teams, they're going to try to find their scoring, but in the mean time they're going to play good defense. We're expecting a good defensive battle."
And now for the decision everyone has been waiting for: Tech will once again start freshman Pheonix Copley in net. He also started the Brock exhibition, but this time Pearson hopes he'll play the whole game.
But, to show just how tight Tech's goaltending battle is, both Kevin Genoe and Jamie Phillips will make the trip - it's unusual to include three goalies among the 22 traveling players.
"(Copley) has looked a little better at this point in the season," Pearson said. "We like his composure in the net. It wasn't just my decisions. As a coaching staff we talked about it. It's difficult because they've all played well. At this point he's the guy. We'll see how the game goes."
The staff will take it game by game, so they have not named Saturday's starter yet.
Faceoff in tonight's game in Sault Ste. Marie is slated for 7:35 p.m., while Tech's regular season home opener against the Lakers is slated to start at 7:07 p.m. Saturday as part of Homecoming weekend, Hall of Fame weekend and a special welcome-back weekend to members of the 1961-62 championship team as a 50th anniversary celebration.