HOUGHTON - Michigan Tech and Colorado College are two of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's three worst defenses and both have struggled with inconsistent goaltending.
The irony of that was spread thick over Friday's game at MacInnes Arena, which was a 1-0 defensive battle for 50 minutes and a tremendous goaltending duel. The Huskies won 2-0 after an empty-net goal, clinching freshman Jamie Phillips' first career shutout.
"We're starting to buy into the concept of good defense wins at this time of year, and we'll get our goals," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "We had some great opportunities tonight, we just didn't finish, but boy, that defense was solid. That was our best defensive game of the year."
Michigan Tech forward C.J. Eick battles with Colorado College defenseman Eamonn McDermott during Friday's 2-0 Tech win at MacInnes Student Ice Arena. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
For his part, Tigers goaltender Joe Howe stopped 31 of 32 shots against, with Tech's only goal coming off a Milos Gordic rush on net midway through the first period in which Howe made the save, only for the rebound to deflect off the skate of Jeff Collett.
"One goal goes off our guy who's backchecking extremely hard, kind of an unlucky goal, the other an empty netter. ... Joe Howe played well and our penalty killing was good and our overall team defense was decent," Colorado College coach Scott Owens said. "We just didn't pay the price to generate more scoring chances, and I thought Tech looked good, they were deep, hard to negotiate with their size and depth right now."
CC had been among the nation's leading offensive teams, averaging 3.3 goals per game, but the adjustment to the NHL-sized rink was tough for the Tigers, according to Owens, and they have only managed six goals in their last four road games.
Colorado College 0 0 0 - 0
Michigan Tech 1 0 1 - 2
First period - 1, MTU, Milos Gordic 6 (Jujhar Khaira, David Johnstone), 9:40. Penalties - MTU, Alex Petan (interference), 6:44; MTU, Aaron Pietila (tripping), 13:11; CC, Eamonn McDermott (interference), 14:08.
Second period - No scoring. Penalties - CC, Mike Boivin (slashing), 9:07; CC, William Rapuzzi (tripping), 9:24; MTU, Riley Sweeney (holding), 14:42; CC, Alexander Krushelnyski (holding), 18:45; MTU, Jacob Johnstone (embellishment), 18:45; MTU, David Johnstone (unsportsmanlike conduct), 18:45.
Third period - 2, MTU, Tanner Kero 9 (Blake Pietila, Steven Seigo), 19:39. Penalties - CC, Joe Marciano (interference), 2:16.
Goalies CC, Joe Howe (32 shots, 31 saves); MTU, Jamie Phillips (22 shots, 22 saves).
"I was a little bit surprised. I thought there'd be more (scoring), but it was a decent game," Owens said. "I was just hoping for a little bit more jam from us, and I thought Tech played real well."
Tech jumped out strong for the second straight game, cycling the puck well in CC's zone and tallying the first five shots on net. Phillips didn't see a shot until 5:43 in, and most shots he faced all night were from the outside.
Finally Tech's pressure paid off when Gordic attacked down the right wing, slamming hard into the net, but it stayed on its moorings and the puck hit off Collett's skate after Howe made the save. A trainer attended to Gordic, who kept playing in the game but sought treatment afterward (and was unavailable for interview).
"We were a little frightened for a while," Pearson said of Gordic's injury, "but he came back, had a strong game, blocked a shot, finished some checks. He's playing his best hockey I've seen since he's been here at Michigan Tech."
Jujhar Khaira and David Johnstone assisted on Gordic's goal, which came at the 9:40 mark of the first period.
That was it for the scoring until 21 seconds left in the game when Tanner Kero buried an empty netter, but it certainly wasn't the end of Tech's chances. The Huskies tallied 33 shots in the game.
Gordic had a golden chance for a second goal 3:45 into the second period, Alex Petan had a one-time opportunity a minute later and C.J. Eick flew down the right wing on a partial break 6:50 into the second, only to be denied by Howe.
"Howe played a real good game, I thought he was the star of the game, he really was," Pearson said. "He made some great saves to keep the game close 1-0 right to the end."
Phillips, while he didn't have to make many electrifying saves, made maybe his best of the night with 7:49 left in the second period, sliding right to left and somehow denying the CC shot. He had another big one with 9 minutes left in the third period, denying 42-point scorer Rylan Schwartz shortside on a partial break.
"(Tech's other freshman goaltender) Pheonix (Copley) has been playing really well, and (senior) Kevin (Genoe) was playing well too to the start of the year. I was just waiting for my opportunity, and now that I got it I'm trying to make the most of it," said Phillips, who was making just his third start of the year. "The team has really been on a hot streak, we've been blocking shots and getting the puck deep and doing all the little things, and that's really making my life a lot easier."
Phillips, a Winnipeg Jets draft pick, has now stopped 58 of the last 59 shots against.
Tech had several third-period chances to seal the win, but Howe came up big every time, including on a pair of two-on-ones in the final 2 minutes. Owens pulled Howe with 42 seconds left, and Kero missed an easy empty-net chance shortly after. Fortunately, the sophomore got another chance moments later and capped off the scoring with a backhander from the right circle, after collecting a pass from Blake Pietila.
"(Alex) Petan had a beautiful feed, I thought he was going to shoot it, and I just missed the tap-in, so I figured I could finish it off with Blake's pass there," Kero said. "... I thought he was going to shoot it, too, but he made a real unselfish play. I guess I'll take it.
"... I think we're playing some of our better hockey, we're playing really good defensively, helping each other out, and trusting each other, and I think we'll take this really good into the playoffs."
Tech (11-17-4, 7-15-4 WCHA), which only welcomed 2,639 fans Friday night (capacity is 4,466) after a "Sell out CC" promotion, will wrap up the regular season at 7:07 tonight against Colorado College (13-16-5, 10-12-4 WCHA). A ceremony will be held after the game to honor the seven Huskies seniors.
After Friday's results, Tech is now locked into 10th place in the WCHA standings and will play either St. Cloud State, Minnesota or North Dakota in the first round of the playoffs, depending on remaining results.