HOUGHTON - If the Michigan Tech Huskies want to extend their winning streak to three or four games, they better keep five skaters on the ice this weekend against Minnesota Duluth.
The Bulldogs (3-7-2, 1-5-2 Western Collegiate Hockey Association), who make their final trek to Houghton as conference rivals, have struggled to score this year, but of their 29 goals, 14 of them are on the power play. UMD is the most penalized team in the country, averaging 18.7 penalty minutes per game, but they also draw 18.2 minutes per game, and senior Mike Seidel leads the nation with five power-play goals.
"Coach (Mel Pearson) was talking about how 50 percent of their goals have come on the power play, so I think it's important for us to stay out of the box and stay disciplined and play them 5-on-5. If we do that, we should have no problem," said senior defenseman and assistant captain Steven Seigo, who got the scoring monkey off his back with two goals in Tech's sweep over Bemidji State two weeks ago.
Michigan Tech’s C.J. Eick and Nebraska Omaha’s Jaycob Megna watch the play in the corner to the right of goaltender John Faulkner during the teams’ game Nov. 3. The Huskies are at MacInnes Student Ice Arena for the first time since that night, beginning a weekend series against Minnesota Duluth tonight. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Tech (4-6-0, 3-5-0 WCHA) was off last weekend and has only played two games since Nov. 3. UMD, which lost an incredible amount of talent in the offseason (Hobey Baker winner and 60-point scorer Jack Connolly, 53-point scorer Travis Oleksuk, 47-point scorer J.T. Brown, defenseman Brady Lamb and goaltender Kenny Reiter, to name a few), split against St. Cloud State last weekend. The Bulldogs' 2-1 Friday win is their only WCHA win of the season and the only one in their last nine games.
"They're not that bad. They played hard, they played well, they've lost some tough games in overtime," Pearson said. "They're a bounce here, goal there from being above .500. They're looking for some identity and who's going to step up for them from losing arguably three of the best college hockey players last year up front, plus defense and goalie."
UMD's top returning scorer (33 points last year), sophomore Caleb Herbert, has not scored in 12 games this year, and only has four assists. Seidel has 14 points, but after him, seven of the next nine leading scorers on the team are underclassmen.
The youth movement has worked a little better for the Huskies, whose top five scorers are freshmen or sophomores. Tech has scored 31 goals in 10 games (compared to UMD's 29 in 12).
In fact, the relatively new line of sophomore Blake Pietila and freshmen Alex Petan and Jujhar Khaira has quickly emerged as a dominant No. 1 line. The trio combined for 10 of the 19 points tallied in the sweep over Bemidji State.
"The chemistry there has been good over the last couple weeks and we just have to keep it going," said Petan, who leads Tech with 10 points and is tied for the WCHA point lead among freshmen. "The boys are all fired up (tonight) to get back into a game situation. I think we're well rested and it should be a good weekend."
The 18-year-old Khaira's emergence has been key, and, like Seigo, he got the scoring monkey off his back with a pair of goals in Bemidji.
"I'm happy I helped contribute to both of the wins," said Khaira, who garnered WCHA Rookie of the Week honors for Nov. 16-17. "It was a big series for us. We were on a five-game losing streak. Now the team is getting better with every practice and every game, and we're playing well."
If Tech can get its junior class scoring consistently, it could be a potent offense. Ryan Furne, Jacob Johnstone and Milos Gordic combined for 29 goals as sophomores, and they only have three this year, with Johnstone still scoreless.
"You'd like to project them taking a step up to 12-15 goals each, and they're going to have to have a good stretch here," Pearson said. "We need them."
Tech also needs to sustain solid goaltending, which it got against the Beavers. Coming off 53 saves on 58 shots against BSU, senior Kevin Genoe will get the start tonight as well.
"He's earned it," Pearson said. "He knows what it takes. Now he just has to go out and do it and he's going to get an opportunity now to run with it."
Goaltending and special teams have been major areas of focus during the off week, but the overarching theme throughout practice has been hard work.
"This is a critical juncture in our schedule There has to be a sense of urgency to our game," Pearson said. "We have to make sure we're competing hard and the skill will show up. If you're not competing it doesn't matter. That's what we've really stressed."
Tech owns a 119-82-19 all-time record in the storied rivalry against Minnesota Duluth, and the Huskies took three of four points from the Bulldogs in their last meeting in Duluth Jan. 27-28. UMD, though, is 7-1-1 against Tech in the last nine games, including five straight wins at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena.
If either game goes to overtime, it could get interesting. Tech has only lost one of its last 23 overtime games, while UMD has only lost five of its last 42 extra sessions.
Faceoff is slated for 7:07 p.m. today and Saturday. Throughout the games, follow @steander on Twitter and interact with the #mtuhky hashtag.
After this weekend, Tech will travel to non-conference rival Northern Michigan on Tuesday before visiting Wisconsin next weekend to wrap up a stretch of five games in nine days.
"We haven't even talked about Northern with the team," Pearson said.
"League points are to me so critical and so important, and that's why we'll put a lot of emphasis on this series and get through the weekend and see where we are."