HOUGHTON - The Huskies are guaranteed to win this weekend's hockey series, but the Michigan Tech Huskies know it'll take a monumental effort to take down the hosting No. 7 St. Cloud State Huskies, the league's first-place team.
SCSU owns a 16-7-1 record in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (19-12-1 overall) and can clinch the MacNaughton Cup this weekend, but Tech (10-16-4, 6-14-4 WCHA) would love nothing more than to spoil the opportunity.
"We have to want it more than them this weekend, and they're going to put everything out there to lock up first place," Tech captain and senior defenseman Carl Nielsen said. "But I think the team is hungrier than ever to go into the playoffs with something to prove. We want to do our part to keep St. Cloud from hoisting that trophy this weekend."
Certainly the four points at stake are important, but now that playoff home ice is out of reach for 10th-place Tech this season, the final road series of the regular season has that much more importance in terms of preparation for the playoffs.
"This is a great test for us because this is the type of environment that we're going to have to go into against a team like this and be able to beat them two out of three," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "That's how we're approaching it. We've reached some of our goals; (home ice) we didn't, but there's still a lot of hockey and we can still accomplish some things."
Consistency has been an issue all year, which Pearson readily admits, but now is crunch time. Tech can play as few as six games or as many as 14, and the Huskies have talked a lot about getting to the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul.
"We can still do that. We did it last year and nobody gave us a chance to do it then either," Pearson said.
Nobody is giving Tech much of a chance this weekend either, but that's an underdog role the Huskies are embracing and using as fuel. Tech hasn't won at the National Hockey Center since Nov. 14, 1998, a 3-2 win (although Tech won 3-2 in the teams' most recent meeting Feb. 25 in Houghton).
"Everybody's telling us we haven't won since '98, we have no chance," Pearson said. "But I haven't been there, I haven't lost a game in St. Cloud as a head coach. We can't change what's taken place, but we hadn't won the (Great Lakes Invitational) in 32 years either, so here we go. It's a big challenge, but that's good because it's a greater opportunity."
But at risk of sounding overconfident, Pearson quickly emphasized the magnitude of the challenge, saying "they're in first place for a reason."
Depth is the biggest reason, according to Pearson, along with senior leadership. Drew LeBlanc is a Hobey Baker candidate with a nation-leading 32 assists. The senior, who was featured in a Feb. 24 New York Times article, has 139 points in 162 career games.
Senior Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Ben Hanowski and junior L.A. Kings draft pick Nic Dowd each have 13 goals as forwards, while junior Detroit Red Wings pick Nick Jensen has 22 assists from the blue line - second in the nation among defenseman for the 2012 All-WCHA first team member. SCSU has seven players with at least 20 points (Tech has four) and five with 25 (Tech has one, Alex Petan with 28). Add the steady goaltending of sophomore netminder Ryan Faragher (.915 save percentage, 2.25 goals against average) who is fourth in the nation with 18 wins, and it's clear SCSU's success is no fluke. He has been particularly stout during St. Cloud's last 10 games, in which the team is 7-2-1 and he has a .928 save rate and 2.01 GAA.
Tech's Pheonix Copley, who will start his 14th straight game tonight, has a similar .930 save percentage and 2.29 goals against average since Christmas, helping the Huskies to a 6-6-1 record during that span.
"We've decided he's pretty well the guy that needs to get us to where we need to go, and we're going to give him that chance to do it," Pearson said.
Tech, which has everyone healthy, has experimented with a variety of line combinations and defensive pairings during the sixth off week of the season, at times just to keep practice interesting. Follow @steander on Twitter for full lineups later today.
Michigan Tech is 0-3-2 on the Olympic-sized ice this season, but after playing on one at Minnesota State, the Huskies hope that familiarity will them to adjust quicker to the bigger sheet this time around.
Faceoff tonight is slated for 8:37 p.m. (ET) and Saturday's game - SCSU's senior night and throwback jersey night (Tech will bring both black and white jerseys) - will start at 8:07. The game will be broadcast locally on Charter channel 87.
For additional game-day updates, and more coverage throughout the week, follow @steander on Twitter, and interact with the #mtuhky hashtag.