HOUGHTON - The frustration from Tuesday's 2-1 loss at Northern Michigan could be felt all around the Michigan Tech hockey program Wednesday - frustration about the loss, frustration about mounting penalties, frustration about missed scoring opportunities and yes, frustration about the officiating.
"It hung with us a little bit," Tech coach Mel Pearson admitted. "It's natural, it should but you can't let the refereeing bother you. The coaches have to be better, too. We can't be all over the referees because then the team loses focus."
In any case, even as the team left Houghton Thursday morning, it was clear a fire had been lit under the Huskies. What's left to be determined this weekend at Wisconsin is whether it will be the destructive type, or whether it will fuel Tech to a strong finish in 2012.
"I think everybody was just kind of upset and tempers were pretty hot. Throughout the team guys wanted a better result and I don't think we got the result we deserved," assistant captain and junior defenseman Brad Stebner said about Tuesday's game, in which he scored his first goal of the season.
"The boys learned from it," he added. "We have to hate to lose and that hasn't been the case as much as we want to, and I think after (Tuesday) night you can see the emotions were hot, and hopefully we can use it to our advantage this weekend."
Tech may need whatever motivating force it can muster tonight and Saturday against the Badgers, who have motivation of their own in looking to avoid their first 0-5 home start since 1975-76.
Add the momentum from taking three points against league-leading Denver last weekend - in Denver - coupled with the return of top returning scorer Mark Zengerle (fourth in the nation with 50 points as a sophomore in 2011-12) from a broken finger and the second weekend back from a controversial NCAA suspension for highly touted freshman Nic Kerdiles, and UW is much more dangerous than its 2-7-1 overall and 2-5-3 WCHA records indicate.
"We're catching them at the wrong time, but that's OK," Pearson said. "We'll see hopefully their best, and it'll bring the best out of us."
Tech (4-8-1, 3-6-1 WCHA) has actually been playing well on the road all year despite its 2-4 record away from home. The Huskies have not been outshot in any of their six road games this year, they've swept Bemidji State at Sanford Center and they outshot Denver 66-50 in two losses at Magness Arena.
But it's not the number of shots that worries the team.
"We're creating the chances, it's just a matter of putting them in," Stebner said. "We need that extra little bit of desperation in front of the net, and I think that's what's going to turn our game around."
Better shot placement and generating traffic will also help, as will getting the all-important "puck luck" against the solid goaltending they'll see this week in reigning WCHA Co-defensive Player of the Week, sophomore Landon Peterson. He stopped 35 of 36 shots at Denver last Saturday and now owns a WCHA-best 1.88 goals against average and .941 save percentage in league games.
"(Tuesday) was frustrating because we generated a lot of good scoring chances, but we just didn't have much to show for it," Pearson said. "We have to convert. Part of it is bearing down around the net. A little is having more patience at times. We get a rebound and we just whack at it."
In the scoring department, Tech's forwards, particularly the juniors and their well-documented struggles, could learn a lesson from sophomore Blake Pietila, who leads the team with eight goals.
"One of the things I've been learning lately is if you're getting to the net you're getting a lot more dirty goals and a lot better chances," said Pietila, who, combined with freshman linemates Alex Petan (13 points in 13 games, sixth in the nation in rookie scoring) and Jujhar Khaira (10 points), have tallied 16 points in the last four WCHA games.
In the penalty department, though, Pietila, a key penalty killer, has struggled lately, racking up 10 penalty minutes in the last three games, plus a 10-minute misconduct at NMU.
"Guys like myself, penalty killers taking penalties are hurting us," said Pietila. "Coach Pearson has talked to me a little bit about controlling myself. I have to find a happy medium and control the penalties."
While Tech has an idea of what to expect from Wisconsin, with five games in nine days, the Huskies have been focusing more on themselves than game planning for the opposition.
"The thing we need to focus on is ourselves and getting pucks and people to the net, and obviously coming out with desperation," Stebner said. "Slow starts are kind of our Achilles heel right now, so hopefully we can come out and use our emotions from this weekend and get it going early."
After outscoring opponents 6-2 in the first period of the first three games of the year, Tech has been outscored 7-1 in the first period of the last three games.
But if the Huskies can channel the frustration from Tuesday into positive energy, maybe a quicker start and better result are in order, just like Tech's home sweep over Wisconsin last season.
"These are important points," Pearson said. "Even though things maybe aren't going our way, we're not far off from changing our luck and changing our momentum."
For lineup and injury updates before tonight's game, and updates throughout the weekend, follow @steander on Twitter and interact with the #mtuhky hashtag.