HOUGHTON - Michigan Tech didn't have much time to reflect on its weekend split against No. 1 Minnesota because now the Huskies embark on their longest road trip of the year to challenge No. 5 Denver.
If this weekend's series is even close to as memorable as the three games between the two teams last year, it'll be a great one.
The Huskies beat the No. 2 Pioneers 7-2 last October at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena when DU coach George Gwozdecky pulled his goaltender with more than six minutes remaining and Tech pumped in three empty-net goals in 31 seconds. The teams then tied 2-2 the following night.
Of course the most recent memory against DU isn't quite so positive for Tech fans after the Pioneers knocked them out of last year's Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five with a 3-2 overtime victory.
But the Huskies aren't talking about last year anymore, and the focus has shifted entirely to building off last weekend, channeling the confidence and creating some consistency.
"We set sort of a benchmark we can play up to (against Minnesota), but now we have to play at that level all the time, not once in a while," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "This is a big weekend for us and we have to establish ourselves on the road."
Not that facing the No. 5 team in the country was ever going to be easy, but even Gwozdecky was surprised at his team's offensive output in non-conference wins against University of Massachusetts-Lowell (5-1) and Air Force (5-2).
Offense was projected to be Denver's weakest area coming into the year after losing Jason Zucker and Drew Shore, but brother Nick Shore's hat trick against Air Force was just part of the Pioneers' impressive offensive start. DU was also 4 of 6 on the power play over the weekend.
"We definitely have to step up," said Tech defenseman and assistant captain Brad Stebner, who is a plus-6 this year, along with captain and defensive partner Carl Nielsen.
"I think we played really well Friday, and our defense kind of fell back a little bit Saturday," Stebner added. "We're ready for the opportunity and we just have to make sure everyone buys in and we have to calm down in our D-zone. We just have to be more patient and trust ourselves."
Tech's D will be without Dan Sova, who did not make the trip due to an injured hand. Jimmy Davis is projected to play alongside Justin Fillion, and freshman Walker Hyland traveled as the extra defenseman.
Tech's offense is off to a pretty solid start of its own, but it faces stiff opposition on the DU blue line and between the pipes. Of the 26 points Denver scored last weekend, more than 40 percent of them came from defensemen. Sophomore Joey LaLeggia garnered national and WCHA Rookie of the Year honors as a freshman last year with his 38 points, and another sophomore, David Makowski, was on the All-WCHA Rookie Team with 30 more points. And they're just the young guns.
When Tech does advance through the neutral zone, get the puck deep with its aggressive forecheck and start generating chances, it still has to get past one of DU's three outstanding goaltenders.
Sam Brittain was 8-4 last year with a 2.36 goals-against average and a remarkable .932 save percentage. Senior Adam Murray posted career highs in wins (eight), goals-against average (2.98) and save percentage (.909) last year. Juho Olkinuora, who beat Tech in the Final Five last year, is serving a team suspension now but will be eligible to return for Saturday's game, and he earned All-WCHA Rookie Team honors with a 9-8-3 record, 2.18 goals against average and .924 save percentage.
"We can't plan on this guy, that guy, we have to plan on a good goalie," Pearson said. "Like most goalies you have to get traffic, take their eyes away, get them moving - it doesn't matter who plays, we have to be creative in that area."
With 17 goals in four games - and 18 different players tallying points - the Huskies are scoring at a solid rate, but Jacob and David Johnstone, and Malcolm Gould, Tech's second line, has been held without a goal.
Pearson has moved Chad Pietila, who has two goals, up to that line to jumpstart it - Jacob Johnstone does have six points in six career games against Denver. Gould will join Dennis Rix and C.J. Eick on the fourth line, which, with Chad Pietila, has seven points this year.
"We just have to play hard, and play good defense - defense first - and we'll get our chances," said Pietila, who, along with brother Blake accounted for four of Tech's seven goals against Minnesota.
Houghton native Blake Hietala will be Tech's extra forward among the 22 players on the trip.
In net, freshman Pheonix Copley earned tonight's start with last weekend's WCHA Rookie of the Week performance. Fellow freshman Jamie Phillips will be the backup and could get his first collegiate start Saturday depending on how tonight's game goes.
"If we want to make sure we're right in the thick of things at the end of the season, we have to find a way to win some games on the road," Pearson said. "It presents a good challenge against a real good team, but I think we're up for the task."
Faceoff between Tech (2-2-0, 1-1-0 WCHA) and Denver (2-0-1, 0-0-0 WCHA) from 6,026-seat Magness Arena - perhaps the final time the Huskies ever play there with DU leaving the WCHA next year - is slated for 9:37 tonight and 9:07 p.m. Saturday.