HOUGHTON - Hockey fans may see this weekend's Michigan Tech home hockey series against Minnesota in a lot of ways.
It's an underdog match-up against the No. 1 team in the country, Western Collegiate Hockey Association opening weekend, the Gophers' last trip to Houghton before moving to the new Big Ten conference next year, the newest installment in a revitalized rivalry and a rematch after last year's heated series - but Huskies players and coaches only see it as one thing: a great opportunity.
"Speed, skill, depth, experience, they know how to win - those ingredients obviously make them the best team in college hockey, and it's going to be a huge challenge," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "But with a huge challenge comes a great opportunity, and that's how we're approaching this weekend."
The Gophers earned their near-unanimous No. 1 ranking by destroying then-No. 16 Michigan State 5-1 and 7-1, with WCHA Offensive Player of the Week and likely Hobey Baker candidate Nick Bjugstad tallying both game-winning goals.
"I'm so happy he came back and played college hockey this year," Pearson said of Bjugstad, who, unlike players who left early for the NHL, is actually playing right now. "It's good to get guys like that playing in our league. He's a fantastic player, but he's just one of a handful of really good players they have."
Seventeen of the Gophers' 20 active skaters scored points against Michigan State, which certainly means the Huskies will need a better defensive effort than the 4-2 loss and 8-4 win over Lake Superior State last weekend.
"We're not going to win many games in the WCHA or college hockey letting up four goals a game," Tech captain and defenseman Carl Nielsen said. "You're not going to completely shut them down. They're going to get their opportunities; they're going to get their chances. We just have to make sure we capitalize on ours."
Puck management will again be the name of the game for Tech as they look to take advantage of their NHL-sized rink against Minnesota, which is used to playing on the massive Olympic-sized ice sheet at Mariucci Arena.
It will also be critical for the Huskies to set the tone early and maintain that level of play for 60 minutes, while staying out of the penalty trouble that cost them at times last weekend.
"The first thing we need is to stay out of the penalty box," said fourth-line forward Dennis Rix, who already has two goals this season.
"It's all about focus really, about our mental toughness coming in."
Rix will be playing once again with freshman speedster C.J. Eick, but Chad Pietila will center the line instead of Daniel Holmberg, at least on Friday. No other lineup changes are expected, and Pearson is pleased with the chemistry and scoring capability of all four lines.
Even last year Tech had nine players with eight goals or more, the only team in the country with that claim.
Pietila adds "spunk and energy" to the fourth line, according to Pearson, and those will be necessary components against the Gophers - but within moderation.
Tech knows all too well what that energy, channeled both positively and negatively, can turn into after last year's series at Minnesota. Early last December the Huskies shocked the Gophers, 3-2, with an overtime winner by captain Brett Olson, before falling 6-2 the next night.
In the second game, Minnesota scored its last four goals in the final 17 minutes. The last few minutes of the contest deteriorated into players pushing and shoving, coaches screaming at each other and an altogether embarrassing conclusion to an otherwise inspiring weekend for the Huskies.
"That was a weird situation, and I don't anticipate anything happening this time," Pearson said. "We've spoken to all their coaches numerous times since that, so I think that's behind us."
But playing the best team in the country in front of potential sellout crowds at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena will undoubtedly create an emotional environment once again.
"It's going to an emotional game, to say the least, especially after last year and the rivalry with Minnesota," Nielsen admitted.
The Gophers have won eight of the last 10 games and they own a 172-77-15 all-time record in one of the most storied college hockey rivalries - which includes Tech's 1975 championship win over the Herb Brooks-coached Gophers. The rivalry element hasn't carried the same weight in recent decades when the Huskies were more of a doormat than a challenger, but Tech's resurgence has brought more meaning to the match-up, even though Tech is still considered a heavy underdog.
"The game isn't played on paper, it's played where you have to go out and earn it. Hard work will beat talent when talent doesn't work hard," said Tech assistant coach Bill Muckalt, whose over-the-glass tirade was one of the most memorable moments from last year's fiasco.
Yet another subplot to this weekend's series may or may not play out, but Tech freshman goaltender Pheonix Copley, who will start tonight, may oppose Minnesota freshman goaltender Adam Wilcox, who was Copley's teammate with the United States Hockey League's Tri-City Storm.
"I would like Pheonix to go head-to-head against Wilcox," Pearson said. "We're going with the guy we think will give us the best chance to win."
The Huskies are still taking it one game at a time, and senior Kevin Genoe would figure to be in line for Saturday's start, like last weekend.
Minnesota is in a two-man rotation with Wilcox and junior Michael Shibrowski.
"That'd be really nice (to play against Wilcox). I look forward to that opportunity," Copley said. "We had a good relationship. It's not like we had a problem with each other personally, but obviously it's competition and we're both competing really hard. It'd be nice to come out on top."
It will take quite an effort for Tech to come out on top as a team against the No. 1 team in the country - and keep Minnesota coach Don Lucia stuck at 599 career wins, one shy of being the 10th coach to 600 - but the Huskies are at least ready for the challenge.
"Hopefully we get a great crowd, because you're not going to find a better team to come and watch and experience," Pearson said. "The style they're playing, the skill and skating team, we're trying to get to that point, so you should see a wide open game, a real exciting game."
Saturday's game will feature a free tailgate near the Student Development Complex entrance from 5 to 7 p.m. with chili served by The Library Restaurant and beverages from Continental Fire Company and Coca-Cola.
Faceoff is slated for 7:07 p.m. both nights. Tonight's game will also air on Fox Sports Detroit and Fox Sports North, with the latter station also carrying Saturday's broadcast.