It's been feast or famine for the Michigan Tech hockey team lately, going from playing two games in 26 days to five games in nine days.
Any momentum the Huskies had after sweeping Bemidji State was gone by the time Minnesota Duluth came to town. Now, after a disappointing one-point weekend against the Bulldogs, Tech must manufacture its own momentum with an incredibly quick turnaround time ahead of tonight's non-conference game against rival Northern Michigan.
"I thought the long break, the two weekends off really showed up this weekend, more so than it did in Bemidji," Tech coach Mel Pearson said after Saturday's 4-4 tie against UMD. "I really thought our game conditioning, game intensity, just game competition, compete level showed up this weekend, and not in a good way. But I think it'll help us going forward."
But now the balancing act begins.
Pearson and his staff have been emphasizing hard work for weeks, but with so many games in a short span, Tech had just a 45-minute walk-through practice Monday, and it'll have just over an hour of practice time Wednesday before leaving Thursday for a weekend series at Wisconsin.
"It's a really weird week obviously. We don't have much practice time, so that screws everything up," Pearson said. "It's just unfortunate we had to play this (NMU game) when we did."
So, with a key Western Collegiate Hockey Association series in Madison this weekend and North Dakota coming to town the week after, how is Tech approaching its rivalry match-up?
"We're obviously going to put a lineup together that we feel will win the game first and foremost, but at the same time it does give us an opportunity to play some guys who have looked good in practice," he said.
Top-line players Blake Pietila, Alex Petan and Jujhar Khaira, who have been racking up points - and penalties - like crazy, will certainly play tonight, but forward Aaron Pietila will play in his second game of the season, senior defenseman Tommy Brown will see his first action of the year and freshman goaltender Jamie Phillips is penciled in to get his first career start in net.
"You don't want to throw (Phillips) in a situation that's going to be way over his head, but at the same time, it's a good opportunity against a team we feel confident we can compete with and beat," Pearson said. " What hurt us is the byes with not much hockey, especially for a goalie, keeping them going is tough. With playing five games in three days it might be a good opportunity for Jamie."
As of late Monday night, Pearson wasn't certain Phillips would start and several other lineup decisions will be made today. Defenseman Dan Sova's left wrist has not healed as fast as hoped, and it's likely he will be out until after Christmas. Walker Hyland is projected to be Brown's defensive partner with Justin Fillion battling back problems.
Whoever plays tonight in Marquette, the Huskies know what they have to improve on.
"We need to do a much better job on our penalty killing and limiting our penalties and we need to get some players going," Pearson said.
Tech has the second-worst PK percentage in the nation, killing off just 74.1 percent of penalties (although UMD's power play is now fifth in the country at 25.4 percent).
Penalties will inevitably happen at some point, but another problem is who is taking penalties.
Freshman Jujhar Khaira is tied for third on the team with 10 points, but he already has 33 penalty minutes in 12 games. Tanner Kero has nine points but 17 penalty minutes and key penalty killer Blake Pietila has 12 penalty minutes.
Juniors Ryan Furne, Milos Gordic and Jacob Johnstone have a combined 12 penalty minutes, but unfortunately they also only have a combined three goals. They combined for 29 last year. At least David Johnstone has come on strong with three goals in the last five games after starting the year with just one goal in the first 10 games.
With plenty of question marks of their own, the Huskies aren't focusing on game planning for the Wildcats, though NMU's large ice sheet should serve as good preparation for this weekend at the Kohl Center.
"We can't worry about Northern as much as we are worrying about our team," Pearson said. "It's an Olympic sheet and we have some guys who can skate pretty well, so we'll try and get some guys involved in the game, and obviously our conference games are very, very important.
Playing an Olympic sheet should help us going into Wisconsin's bigger ice sheet, but we'll get guys involved and we'll play to win."
Tech hasn't beat NMU since Oct. 8, 2010 - a four-game winless streak - and the Huskies' last win in Marquette came on Dec. 20, 2008.
Stephen Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/steander and interact throughout the week about Tech hockey with the #mtuhky hashtag.