HOUGHTON - The Western Collegiate Hockey Association farewell tour continues this week for future National Collegiate Hockey Conference member North Dakota, and Michigan Tech would love nothing more than to send the No. 8-ranked team away from Houghton with bad memories and no points.
For the second straight week the Huskies (4-8-3, 3-6-3 WCHA) will face an opponent coming off a three-point series against league-leading Denver, and, while UND "only" has an 8-5-3 overall record (5-2-3 WCHA), it's earned it against the second-toughest schedule in the country.
"They've had a tough schedule, and they've done really well playing that schedule," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "Their non-conference games are Boston U and Notre Dame, so they've had some good series, but they're always strong, well coached, play hard, play the right way.
"It'll be a great weekend of hockey. We're going to need our best effort to compete with them, per man. That's what we're talking about is just the preparation."
Tech has fallen back into a more normal hockey routine after a stretch with five games in nine days, but as student-athletes, there's nothing easy about this time of year being the final week of classes and next week being final exams.
"Hockey-wise it's a sense of normality, but as far as school goes, it's a grind with finals and all the teachers hammering us with papers and presentations," Tech captain and senior defenseman Carl Nielsen said. "You pretty much have three lives: your hockey life, your school life and your social life, and unfortunately you can only have two of those around this time. Hopefully guys decide it's school and hockey."
North Dakota's exam week and semester ends today, so the UND players can focus all their attention on hockey. The Huskies can only hope they'll check out early, though, on their three-week break from hockey and school after playing at least one game in 10 straight weekends.
Regardless, UND is a formidable opponent, particularly with its top two lines.
"Their top six guys are as good as any six guys in the country, and they have some nice role players beyond that," Pearson said.
Senior forward Corban Knight leads UND with 17 points, and he's only two career points shy of Zach Parise's 116 career points in UND history. He also has quite a history against Tech, with nine points in 10 career games against the Huskies.
Another senior forward, Danny Kristo has 15 points this season and eight in six career games against Tech. His 124 career points make him fourth among active Division I scoring leaders.
Then there's WCHA preseason freshman of the year Rocco Grimaldi, who also has 15 points already, including a four-point night last Saturday.
Add in Mark MacMillan's 12 points and Drake Caggiula and Carter Rowney's 11 points, and UND forwards will put Tech's veteran defense and Kevin Genoe's recent hot streak to the test.
Genoe saved 64 of 68 shots (.941 save percentage) last weekend in two ties at Wisconsin, and the Huskies have reduced the nearly four goals allowed per game average over the first 12 games to half that in the last three.
"Guys have bought in and are starting to realize the importance of defense," Nielsen said. "We've been preaching it all year, but sometimes it takes a couple weeks or a month or so of pounding it in to finally realize you're not going to win many games giving up seven goals (like against Minnesota Duluth), home or away."
Offensive output has been inconsistent, but injuries have played a role. Sophomore forward Tanner Kero will likely be a game-time decision after an emergency appendectomy last Friday, while forwards David Johnstone and Chad Pietila practiced most of the week. Lineups were still uncertain as of Thursday's practice.
Blake Pietila, who will be flying out Sunday with Grimaldi to the U.S. World Junior team training camp in New York, continues to rack up the points, and he now has nine goals on the season, but secondary scoring has also been critical.
Freshman forward Malcolm Gould scored his first career goal Saturday in Wisconsin, while sophomore forward and Houghton native Blake Hietala has taken advantage of more playing time with his second career goal Saturday.
"Coming into this season I just wanted a chance to play and now that I'm getting in there every night it's nice to be contributing and helping the team win hockey games," Hietala said. "It's been really important (to get secondary scoring), especially since last weekend we had a few guys injured.
"We needed guys to step up and score and we had a few guys do that. We're going to need to do that for the rest of the season to be successful."
Tech is looking to snap a five-game home losing streak to UND this weekend, and North Dakota has won 19 of the last 21 meetings in the 248-game all-time series (145-93-10). If the Huskies pulled off a sweep, they would match UND at 13 points in the WCHA standings heading into their Christmas break.
Faceoff for Tech's last home series of 2012 and last home games until Jan. 18-19 is slated for 7:07 p.m. today and Saturday.
For lineup and injury updates before tonight's game, and updates throughout the weekend, follow @steander on Twitter and interact with the #mtuhky hashtag.