GRAND FORKS, N.D. - The Michigan Tech hockey team has snapped plenty of streaks this year, but it'll have to snap several others if it wants to keep the season going beyond this Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff-opening weekend.
The 10th-seeded Huskies, who snapped a 32-year Great Lakes Invitational championship drought and a 15-year losing streak at St. Cloud State earlier this season, now face the daunting challenge of snapping third-seeded North Dakota's 10-year streak of advancing to the WCHA Final Five. UND is hosting a first-round series for the 11th straight year, and it has won 13 consecutive WCHA playoff games, including three straight Broadmoor Trophies (awarded to the Final Five winner). Tech is winless in its last 16 games against North Dakota.
"They're a heck of a hockey team, they're talented, they have great seniors, a winning tradition," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "We're the prohibitive underdog, big time."
Tech has fallen victim to UND in the playoffs four times in the last 10 years, and the Huskies didn't fare any better in the regular season, losing 6-1 and 4-1 games in December, in Houghton.
"Yeah, underdogs, whatever, but people get upset all the time," said sophomore forward David Johnstone, who said the team has looked to the NHL's L.A. Kings for inspiration. "It doesn't really matter what seed you're in."
The Huskies have shown signs of turning the corner, whether it's the 3.35 goals per game since Christmas (seventh in the nation during that span) or the 2.41 goals against during the second half (15th in the nation). The power play unit, which Johnstone is a big part of, is clicking at an unbelievable 35.5 percent since Feb. 8, and the Huskies have killed off 13 of the last 14 penalties as well.
"We're just moving the puck, we're not trying to overthink things, just getting the zone set up, moving it quick and getting pucks to the net," senior defenseman Steven Seigo said of the man advantage.
Johnstone and Seigo are both rolling on four-game point streaks, and Seigo has an incredible streak of his own as he prepares to play in his 148th straight game since starting his career at Tech in 2009.
"It makes it a lot easier to get up for games because you know you don't have too many left," Seigo said. "I'm glad we have North Dakota. It'd be a great way to end the college career, knocking them out of the WCHA playoffs. I think we can definitely do it. ... We just have to use the energy in the building to our advantage and shut down their top guys."
Easier said than done on that last part. UND senior top-line forwards Corban Knight and Danny Kristo each tallied six points in the December series against Tech, and they have 15 and 14 points, respectively, in their careers against the Huskies. Between the two they have 296 career points, making them the highest-scoring duo in Division I hockey.
"You really can't prepare for them. You just have to be aware of them," Pearson said. "... I don't think it's going to change our game plan a whole lot. There's a certain way we have to play against anybody. But, having said that, you better be on your best defensive posture when you're on the ice."
As referenced in Tuesday's Daily Mining Gazette column, the Huskies have slowed down other WCHA scoring leaders in the second half of the year. Colorado College's Rylan Schwartz tallied one point against Tech, while St. Cloud State's Drew LeBlanc accounted for two - both are on the verge of 50 points this season.
Believe it or not, Knight and Kristo have been held to just a point apiece over the last three games.
"Everything is getting more intense and tighter," Hobey Baker candidate Knight said in a UND press conference earlier this week. "It's definitely something we've noticed is how much tighter the checking is getting. It's been tough sledding out there a couple times, we aren't generating a lot of chances, but that's what we're going to be expecting come playoff time."
Tech hopes that even the chances they do generate will meet a brick wall in net. Pearson was holding off as long as possible in naming a starting goaltender, and said, "You'll see more than one goalie in Grand Forks."
Whether it's Pheonix Copley, who anchored Tech's first GLI win since 1980, or fellow freshman Jamie Phillips, who backboned Tech's first win at SCSU since 1998, or senior Kevin Genoe, who has "looked fantastic" in practice, according to Pearson, the Huskies will need an outstanding performance in net and throughout the lineup to snap UND's streak.
If they do, they will start a streak of their own: two straight trips to the WCHA FInal Five, the first consecutive appearances since 1992-93 and 1993-94.
"We're on a mission," Pearson said. "Not too many people are giving us a chance, and we're a huge underdog. That's the way it is. We have to go in there and find a way to win a couple hockey games. We don't have to win seven, we just have to win two."
The best-of-three playoff series between Tech (12-18-4, 8-16-4 WCHA) and UND (19-10-7, 14-7-7 WCHA) starts tonight at 8:37 from 11,634-seat Ralph Engelstad Arena. Saturday and Sunday's (if necessary) games are slated for 8:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday's games will be televised on Fox Sports College Central, DirecTV 668 and Dish Network 436, while Sunday's game would be on Fox College Sports Atlantic.
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