HOUGHTON - Alaska Anchorage will play in its first Winter Carnival series this weekend, and Michigan Tech knows anything less than two wins against the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's last-place team will be a disappointment.
But it won't be easy against the Seawolves (3-16-7, 1-15-6 WCHA, 0-8-2 on the road), who narrowly own a 28-27-10 all-time record against Tech.
"They're much better than the record. I've spoken with some coaches in the league about them, and they're a really hard-working team," said Tech coach Mel Pearson, whose Huskies beat UAA three of four times last year. "That's our message is it's going to be hard-fought. We're not going to blow these guys out. It's going to be a hard-fought weekend and probably close one-, two-goal games."
To be frank, coaches will always talk up an opponent to make sure their team takes that opponent seriously, but even just a closer look at UAA's results should serve as ample warning to the Huskies against a letdown.
Their one WCHA?win, for example, came against St. Cloud State, which now leads the WCHA with 29 points (the other game against the other Huskies was an overtime loss). The Seawolves have also been in 13 one-goal games this year - half their games - and while they haven't won any of them, they have ties against fourth-place Minnesota and fifth-place North Dakota.
Some of their one-goal losses have come against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Minnesota Duluth. They're also coming off a pair of ties against Colorado College.
"We have to outwork them, plain and simple," said senior forward Mikael Lickteig, who scored Tech's game-winning goal last Saturday in Omaha. "They might not have the big names, but they're going to be one of the hardest-working teams we face. The only way to beat them is outwork them, play smart, protect the puck, stay out of the box and hopefully come out with a 'W.'"
Alaska Anchorage's win-loss track record certainly hasn't been good this year, but neither has Tech's Winter Carnival track record in recent years. The Huskies have only won three of their last 28 Carnival games (68-44-1 all-time).
"I have my theories as far as distractions and getting out of rhythm because of no school (Thursday and Friday)," Pearson said. " There's a lot of good theories you can draw conclusions from, but going forward we have to change that. That's what I'm here to do and our team is here to do is to change that perception."
Pearson acknowledged fluctuations in practice energy throughout the week, but felt the team finished strong Thursday. Slow starts have been a problem at times this year, but typically after bye weeks, so Pearson hopes last Saturday's OT winner can help Tech carry over "game urgency mode."
Tech is 8-1-1 when scoring first and 0-12-3 when an opponent scores first. That should provide all the early-game urgency needed.
In addition to a strong start, captain Carl Nielsen emphasized success this weekend will all come down to mental focus. He also admitted staying focused is that much more challenging with all the Carnival-related festivities.
"To find that alone quiet time where you can prepare for the game is hard," said Nielsen, who has helped Tech's defense improve to allowing just 2.23 goals against per game over the last 13 games (3.92 in first 12). "It's Winter Carnival weekend, so there's a little more added excitement, little more fun in the atmosphere, some guys have friends and family in town, but we have to stay focused on our opponent and getting four points this weekend."
The team is focusing solely on Friday right now, even more specifically the first period Friday, but this weekend also kicks off a stretch of five games in nine days for the Huskies. Next Tuesday, Tech will seek revenge against Northern Michigan before traveling to Minnesota State next weekend.
"Get on a roll, get confidence, then after a while coaches can stand back and let them play. We're not to that point yet," Pearson said. "We have an opportunity where we have three home games, so we talked about it, we have to be ready to put our best foot forward and play like we can. That's to me the key: we've seen glimpses of how we can play, and we're trying to get that every time."
Tonight's faceoff between Tech and UAA at MacInnes Student Ice Arena is slated for 7:07 p.m., while Saturday's faceoff will be two hours earlier due to Winter Carnival fireworks and other events that night.
It will also cap off a Tech sports tripleheader following men's and women's basketball at 1 and 3 against Grand Valley State.