HOUGHTON - It's dangerous to oversimplify an explanation for Michigan Tech's roller coaster hockey season, but one factor played a particularly prominent role.
"It all starts with goaltending," Tech coach Mel Pearson said.
All three of the Huskies goaltenders - senior Kevin Genoe, freshman Pheonix Copley and freshman Jamie Phillips - showed flashes of brilliance, but battled inconsistency. As they went, so did the team.
Michigan Tech freshman goaltender Pheonix Copley, who started 23 of the Huskies’ 37 games this year, watches the puck as defenseman Steven Seigo works to get the puck out of the slot during a game earlier this year against Bemidji State at MacInnes?Student Ice Arena. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
"Ultimately I'm not satisfied with how the season went for us goaltending-wise," volunteer goalie coach Steve Shields said, "but I'm very, very proud of the way Pheonix and Jamie got to know me and basically committed to creating a relationship where we trust each other."
The two 6-foot-3 freshmen won the trust of the coaches and started 27 of Tech's 37 games this year. The decision of who to start was made solely on who Pearson, Shields and assistant coaches Bill Muckalt and Damon Whitten thought would give the team the best chance to win.
"We (as a coaching staff) are probably in agreement 99 percent of the time and it shows a lot about where our program is at that we have two freshmen who have the ability to compete with guys who are seniors," Shields said.
Copley, with his strikingly calm demeanor, won the starting nod out of the gates after looking good in preseason practice. He quickly made a statement by anchoring a 5-3 league-opening win over then-No. 1 Minnesota.
That performance solidified the coaches' confidence in him, but after the Minnesota series, Copley gave up at least four goals in his next four starts.
"Looking back I probably pushed Pheonix a little hard at the beginning," said Shields, who noted Copley had never worked one-on-one with a goalie coach before. "Maybe a couple games could have gone to Kevin at the beginning."
Copley amassed a 4.36 goals against average and .851 save percentage in the first half of the season.
Genoe, who stands 5-foot-11, then earned nine of his 10 season starts in November and December. He helped Tech to a road sweep at Bemidji State and a pair of ties at Wisconsin, but gave up seven goals in a home series against Minnesota Duluth and nine in a series at home against North Dakota.
In earning a 2-0-2 road record, Genoe saved 92.9 percent of shots and only allowed 2.11 goals against on average; but at home he was 1-3-1 with an .884 save percentage and 4.26 goals against average. His inconsistency, along with Tech's desire to prepare for the future, prevented Genoe from starting any games in the second half.
"For Kevin it was a tough year because he didn't play as much as he wanted to," Shields said. " most nights he did (give us a chance), but if he wants to pursue a professional career, he has to work on his consistency. We both agreed on that."
Genoe finishes his Tech career having played in 70 games, with a career .895 save percentage and 3.58 goals against average (.903 and 3.18 this year).
After Copley and Genoe both battled first-half ups and downs, many fans wondered why Tech didn't utilize Phillips, the only NHL draft pick of the three.
"There were some parts of (Phillips') game that needed a lot of work. More importantly, Jamie needed to convince his coaches and teammates he could go into a game and make a difference," Shields said. "Jamie came into the season and the other guys quite frankly looked a little better the first couple weeks of practice. That sort of set the tone.
"Jamie and I had to sit down and really create a step-by-step plan."
While Shields felt Phillips was just about ready around Christmas, Copley got the nod in the Great Lakes Invitational. All Copley did was shut out Michigan and Western Michigan on back-to-back nights to give Tech its first GLI championship in 32 years. Add a 41-save effort in a 1-0 loss at UMD to start 2013, and Copley kicked off a run of 14 straight starts. In his final 17 starts he tallied a .917 save percentage and 2.78 goals against average, giving him season totals of .900 and 3.22.
Phillips (who had started a non-conference game against Northern Michigan Dec. 4) finally got his chance after Copley again started struggling, allowing at least four goals in three straight games. All Phillips did was save 36 of 37 shots at league-leading St. Cloud State in a 5-1 win, Tech's first there since 1998. He followed that up with a 22-save shutout of Colorado College.
In his four starts and five other appearances, his save percentage was .907 and goals against was 2.40, both best on the team but in a smaller sample size.
"Jamie and the people in his life would have loved to see him play more, but three, four, five years from now he'll agree the work we did the first part of this season was probably a big reason he gets to the level he gets to," said 10-year NHL goaltender Shields of Phillips, a Winnipeg draft pick.
The competition in net helped both Copley and Phillips; and the two, in addition to growing closer to Shields, have grown closer to each other.
"They're both going to be very good, and they've really grown together as friends off the ice," Pearson said.
"They actually come to me together sometimes," Shields said. "They understand the more they work together and the better they perform together the better it is for the team and individually.
"Our goal going forward is to make sure we have a tandem of goalies next year we can rotate every weekend."
While he'd love to see both goaltenders earn double-digit wins next year, Shields doesn't want them to get distracted with big-picture goals, rather to focus on every shot and every save.
According to Shields, Copley's issues came when he lost the drive to fight through traffic and compete for every puck, and he sometimes struggles playing the puck. While some of Copley's issues were mental, Phillips' problems were mostly physical with mechanics. Both boil down to freshman-like inconsistency.
Shields has worked to establish offseason training plans for both goaltenders, and expectations are high for their sophomore years.
"Jamie and Pheonix are not satisfied. They both want to be hockey players, and if they want to be hockey players, they're going to do whatever it takes," Shields said. "Next year you'll start seeing the results of a year under their belts and a summer of hard work. Their best is good enough for us to win day in and day out."
Working with Copley and Phillips is a big part of what's keeping Shields around, too, and as of now, he plans to return to Houghton this fall as goalie coach.
"Last year when we recruited the goalies we did, I had to make a commitment to the program that I was going to come back on a volunteer basis," Shields said. "When they committed, they asked me if I was going to come I felt like it was only fair to make that commitment.
" I've really enjoyed this year. I've grown attached to the team and the guys and the program. It's something I'd like to continue."
He will meet with Pearson and athletic director Suzanne Sanregret early next week to discuss options.
Tech is also actively recruiting a third goaltender to replace Genoe, but having two sophomores has made it challenging so far.
"That does create some issues, but we'll be able to track a good goaltender," Pearson said. "It has to be the right person who wants to get a Michigan Tech degree first and foremost, but we always want to bring them in with a vision of them being able to play."
For more details from Thursday's 35-minute season-ending interview with Shields and continued offseason coverage, follow @steander on Twitter and interact with the #mtuhky hashtag.