Hitting their stride
Tech’s line of Sturos, Jackson, Neville clicking at right time
CINCINNATI — With arguably the biggest game in the history of the MacInnes Student Ice Arena just a handful of moments away from being played, No. 19 Michigan Tech Huskies coach Mel Pearson had to decide who would have the honor of starting the game. He and his staff settled on the hottest line in the WCHA playoffs to that point for the Huskies, one that features sophomore Jake Jackson, assistant captain Michael Neville and assistant captain Reid Sturos.
Coming into the game, the trio had combined for 14 points in the previous five games.
Jackson scored his fourth goal of the playoffs as part of a two-goal second period for the Huskies Saturday with Neville assisting on the tally in Tech’s 3-2 double overtime win over the Bowling Green Falcons in the WCHA Championship.
In their own estimation, the trio is playing their best hockey right now — and it could not come at a better time for the Huskies.
“I think it is a timing thing,” said Sturos. “We are turning it on at the right time. We haven’t had this much success in the regular season. In the playoffs, we are having success as a line… I think we just click.”
So, where has all this offense come from and where had it been hiding all this season?
Part of the answer is the play of Jackson.
Jackson, who missed much of his freshman year due to injury, struggled through the first 12 games of the season, scattering just two assists over that stretch. After potting two goals in a win over Lake Superior State, Jackson missed the long road trip to Alaska.
After struggling to find his game for much of the next 18 games, things finally started to come together for him against Northern Michigan during the final weekend of the regular season. He has five goals over his last six contests.
“To start the year off, I was just coming back and getting back into the swing of things,” said Jackson. “I was getting some chances early on in the season.
“Once the puck starts going in the net, I’ve started to realize I can score goals. It just feels good to start putting the puck back into the net.”
Sturos and Neville have both been instrumental in helping Jackson figure out his game, and they are reaping the benefits for all the hard work the three have done to grow closer as a group.
“We are just really enjoying playing with each other,” said Neville. “I just think you are seeing a lot of growth and development in each one of our games.”
The two seniors have spent the season together, whether penalty killing or at even strength, helping cement their bond with each other. Jackson has come along and worked hard to fit in with the other two.
“It’s awesome because I’ve gotten to know them both a lot better,” said Jackson. “[I’ve gotten] to know their tendencies, how they prepare for games and how they go about [reacting to] how the game goes on. How they handle situations.
“They are veteran players. It’s been awesome playing with them. They make it a lot easier on me. They work so hard.”
Given how defensively responsible Sturos and Neville are, it was only natural that they would become the perfect tutors for Jackson in the defensive aspects of the game that Pearson demands from his players.
“[Neville and I] try to take him under our wing,” said Sturos. “He’s a great offensive player. We try to teach him a few things in practice, whether it’s blocking shots or getting pucks out on the wall.”
Playing opponents’ top lines has helped motivate the three to continue to work on their defensive play as well.
“As a line, I think we play well defensively,” said Sturos. “I think that is what leads to our scoring that has been happening lately.”
With those 18 points in the playoffs, they are showing that they can then turn that defense into offense from 200 feet away.
“It’s pretty easy to play defense when you are not in your own end a whole lot,” said Neville. “Once we start getting the puck up ice, the game gets exciting. I think we really put an emphasis on getting the puck out of our zone as quickly as possible.”
Learning to play the 200-foot game — as Pearson likes to refer to it — has helped Jackson, Neville and Sturos evolve into a line that the coaching staff can count on in every situation, and that suits them just fine.
They will need to be just as strong as they have been of late if the Huskies want to set their sights beyond No. 1 Denver on Saturday.