HOUGHTON - Competition will always be intense against Western Collegiate Hockey Association opponents, but maybe more intense will be the internal competition for playing time on the Michigan Tech roster in the second half of the season.
Just the way coach Mel Pearson likes it.
"Nobody is entitled to just put that sweater on. They really have to work to be in the lineup," Pearson said Wednesday. "We have competition now, much more than I think we had in the first half."
Several players emerged during Tech's Great Lakes Invitational championship - championship: sounds nice, doesn't it? - several others will be returning from injury in the second half and still several others perhaps learned the hard way what consistent effort at the college level looks like (and what lack of it leads to).
Sunday at the GLI, for example, senior forward Aaron Pietila tallied his first goal and assist of the season in his eighth game played.
Junior forward Daniel Holmberg notched two assists Sunday, and he has three assists in eight games played. Even senior forward Mikael Lickteig picked up an assist in just his second game of the season, though he will be out two to four weeks with a shoulder sprain after being the victim of a late cheap shot in Sunday's win over Western Michigan.
Now, 14 different forwards have played at least eight games for Tech and 13 forwards have goals. Altogether, 18 Huskies have scored goals this season, and seven different players have at least four goals.
While underclassmen continue to carry the brunt of the scoring load, roster-wide balance is starting to shine through, which played a huge role last year. The 2011-12 Huskies had nine different players with eight goals, a year after only two players had more than seven.
Pearson likes what he sees from some of his upperclassmen forwards, who, though they're struggling to score, are making up for it in effort. Ryan Furne, for example, played as well as he has all season at the GLI, according to Pearson. He hopes once the goals do start coming that they'll come in bunches, which many fans hope to see continue with Blake Pietila as well after he returns from playing against the world's best.
With junior defenseman Dan Sova possibly returning from a wrist injury for Tech's next series, Jan. 11-12 at Minnesota-Duluth, and Justin Fillion overcoming back problems, competition heats up on the blue line as well, where all nine defensemen have played at least four games.
The goaltending battle has of course been ongoing all season, and, like everyone will have to do going forward, freshman Pheonix Copley earned his GLI starts in practice.
"He looked good after we practiced a couple days after North Dakota. We told him to be ready, be sharp," Pearson said. "You can see the talent."
Tech's GLI success "all starts with Pheonix" according to Pearson, who noted that Tech was dominated in the first five to seven minutes of both games, but they successfully weathered the storm thanks to Copley and a "total team effort" the rest of the way.
Pearson feels Copley (and other young Tech players) learned how to sustain practice effort, and if that continues into the second half, it should lead to more consistent results, something all goaltenders have struggled with.
"That's the biggest thing going forward, working on practice habits, wanting to be even better, instead of relaxing," Pearson said, specifically of Copley, who started the season with a stellar performance again Minnesota before faltering after that.
"We probably threw too much at him too early, but he's kept his chin up. I think he's matured a lot."
The Tech coaching staff can only hope that maturation has taken place across the roster, because the second half will certainly be an uphill climb from the 3-8-3 WCHA first-half record. The second half does shape up as the third-easiest WCHA schedule among the 12 conference teams, though, according to playoffstatus.com. The opponents of remaining games have a 47 percent win percentage (Nebraska-Omaha has easiest at 45 percent, and Denver and North Dakota hardest at 55 percent).
"We have to make some ground up, take it game by game. We can't look too far ahead and we have to play better at home," Pearson said.
Tech is 2-0-2 in its last four games away from MacInnes Student Ice Arena (4-4-2 this season), but only 0-3-1 in its last four home games (2-6-1 this season).
"We're playing well on the road, but we have to take advantage of the six WCHA home games we have."
Tech's next home action is Jan. 18-19 against Bemidji State, which is tied for eighth in the WCHA standings. The Huskies' other home opponents are last-place Alaska-Anchorage for Winter Carnival and the other team in eighth place, Colorado College.
The Huskies were off Monday and Tuesday, had Wednesday as a travel day, and will practice today through Saturday. They'll have Sunday off before returning to a regular practice schedule Monday, even though spring semester classes don't start until the following Monday.
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.