Tech looks to keep momentum from Alaska trip
HOUGHTON — When Michigan Tech (7-6-4, 5-5-4-1 WCHA) found itself in the midst of a five-game winless streak, head coach Joe Shawhan tried everything. He tried being patient. He tried getting mad. He tried instilling positivity. He tried different lineups and schemes on the ice, but nothing seemed to help his Huskies. But after a road trip in which Tech went 2-0-2 and strung together some of its best hockey, it seems Shawhan may have found the solution to turning around a season.
All the Huskies needed was time and a trip to Alaska.
Isolation, it turns out, was good for them. The Huskies spent the two-week trip doing everything together: They skated together, ate together and saw the sights of Alaska together. With the quality time came quality play.
First, the Huskies took on Alaska Anchorage and came away with two ties. They created offensive chances but weren’t able to convert. Then, when Tech finished the trip with a two-game series against Alaska, the team played arguably its best hockey of the season — winning the first game on a comeback effort after being down 3-0 before defeating Alaska in resounding fashion in the second, 5-1.
“It is good to get away from home when you are struggling, you can bond and stay together as a team,” sophomore forward Alex Smith said. “When you get some wins, it starts to be more fun and you start to get more bounces that you weren’t getting in the beginning of the year.”
Now that the pucks are bouncing in the right direction, Tech has to maintain its momentum in a two-game series against Ferris State (8-9-1, 5-4-1-0 WCHA) on Friday and Saturday at 7:07 in the MacInnes Student Ice Arena.
“You know, that is great that we got those two wins in Fairbanks, but that’s all it is — two wins,” senior captain Brent Baltus said. “So now that we are getting ready to play Ferris it comes down to, are we going to take a step forward and string some games together, or are we going to take a step back? It is just a matter of continuing to build together as a team.”
In the grand scheme of a 37-game schedule, Baltus is right. Two games don’t mean much, but Shawhan says he saw maturation out of his team, which is worth even more than the wins.
The Huskies have spent the season struggling on the penalty kill, but in Alaska, they didn’t give up a power-play goal. They killed 18 chances over the four games.
The improvement Shawhan said can be traced back to his young defensive core hitting its stride. Freshmen Mitch Meek and Seamus Donahue and sophomore Keegan Ford led the way, along with a surprise performance from freshman Todd Kiilunen.
“He stepped up in Fairbanks, and we came out a better team because he increased our depth,” Shawhan said.
Kiilunen hadn’t played a game before Tech took on Alaska, where he scored a goal and recorded an assist in the first matchup.
Patrick Munson was also key against Alaska, making 73 saves in two games and winning WCHA Goaltender of the Week.
“He emerged and played extremely well, and we needed that from him,” Shawhan said. “Especially in the second game in Fairbanks, he came in and gave us a chance.”
Despite the strong performance, Shawhan still plans on mixing up his goalies, something he has done all season. He said he expects Devin Kero to see increased time when he returns from an injury.
In addition to the defensive advancement, Shawhan said he was pleased with the play of Baltus, Jake Jackson and Smith. Baltus had two goals and two assists during the trip, and Smith and Jackson each recorded two goals and three assists.
Tech is riding momentum into the home-series against Ferris, but the Bulldogs are also playing their best hockey of the season. After starting the season with two wins in nine games, Ferris has gone 6-3 in its last nine contests.
The Huskies are also coming off a bye week, which can be dangerous.
“Now we have to make sure that we can have our focus in the right spots and come out and play right away,” Shawhan said. “I have seen it go both ways. I have seen that weeks off can really help teams, and I have seen a week off cause a team to come out sluggish.”
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The Huskies saw improvement on the ice in Alaska, and a lot of that can be credited to their time spent together away from the rink. Shawhan and his team explored anchorage and bonded with 14 days of non-stop team time. Here Alex Smith and Keegan Ford, two players who were key in the last four games, reflect on some highlights from their Alaskan adventure.
Eden Laase: What is it like spending two weeks on the road together?
Smith: “We spent a lot of time at the rink and then at the hotel bonding as a team. You are just around each other so much that it forces you to have fun together and figure things out together. You get a little tired of some of the guys, but it is all in good fun.”
Ford: “There aren’t a lot of times where you get everyone together off the ice. And I think when you get that camaraderie outside the rink, sometimes it translates to on the ice. That certainly showed for us.”
EL: “What was the highlight of the trip?”
Ford: “It was cool to fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks and get to see Mt. McKinley on the plane. You almost feel like you are in another country because you are so far away. My favorite off ice thing was just getting to explore and see the mountains in Anchorage. You could see them right from the hotel or from wherever you are. I just liked hanging out with the guys and adventuring around the town.”
Smith: “The hot springs were pretty cool. We went when we were in Fairbanks and it was about an hour and a half away. It is something that we might never get to do again so we were all excited about that.”
EL: What was the best thing you ate?
Ford: We ate at some really nice restaurants, but the fish and chips was good everywhere you went in Anchorage. That was definitely the favorite meal amongst the guys.”