HOUGHTON - Winning its first Great Lakes Invitational in 32 years was a huge confidence boost for Michigan Tech after a tough first half of the season, but now the Huskies must shift their focus back to Western Collegiate Hockey Association play this weekend.
Easier said than done.
"I think they're still pretty wrapped up into (the GLI championship) a little bit so we have to move beyond that. That's my biggest concern now," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "We have to get back into league play and start to use what we learned there and how we need to play, and play with that type of desperation and move forward. It's almost like every weekend has to be a tournament for us."
Michigan Tech hockey players skate on Portage Lake during an outdoor practice earlier this week. The Huskies play at Minnesota Duluth tonight and Saturday. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Even after struggling to a 3-8-3 conference record in the first half (7-10-3 overall after GLI), Tech's goal is still to earn home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
"We still have a chance for home ice, we really do," said Pearson, who kicked off this week of practice on Portage Lake in front of his house. "I talk a lot about how we can't change what's happened in the first half, so there's no sense looking at the standings because they're just going to be negative. You have to be realistic and honest, but they're negative, so like we did at the GLI, we're going to wipe the slate clean, move forward in the second half and see where we end up."
Last year the home ice (top six in the WCHA) breaking point was 28 points. If Tech sweeps its WCHA home series and splits its road series the rest of the season, it would end up with 29 points.
However realistic that seems, the Huskies begin that second-half quest on the road against Minnesota Duluth tonight and tomorrow. UMD took three of four points from Houghton on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, but the Bulldogs have struggled to a subpar 7-10-3 record themselves (5-6-3 WCHA).
"They're a team a lot like us, a team desperate for points," Pearson said.
And the comparisons don't end there. UMD has relied heavily on its freshman class (sixth highest scoring group in the nation). Tech's Jujhar Khaira and Alex Petan, roommates off the ice, have each compiled 15 points this season; UMD's Tony Cameranesi has 19 (second nationally among NCAA newcomers) and Austin Farley has 16 (five against Tech when he was named WCHA Offensive Player of the Week).
"Just work hard," Khaira said of the reason for his success this year, and what Tech will have to do this weekend. "We need a couple wins here."
UMD, like Tech, has also battled inconsistent goaltending. The Bulldogs have outshot opponents in 16 of 20 games this year, but their goaltenders, junior Aaron Crandall and Matt McNeely, have a combined .888 save percentage. McNeely, like Tech freshman Pheonix Copley, has started to emerge of late, though. He is 4-2-0 in his last six starts with a 2.12 goals against average and .907 save percentage.
Copley, who enters the weekend with a 125:45 shutout streak, will get a chance to take the reins for Tech, Pearson said.
"Pheonix obviously has a leg up after (stopping all 70 shots in back-to-back GLI shutouts), no question, and now he'll get the ball and he has to carry it and see if he can be consistent," he said.
Goaltender coach Steve Shields has been helping Copley (3.30 GAA; was 4.36 before GLI) understand the work ethic it will take to be a No. 1 goalie.
"We've been working a lot with preparation and what it takes to get ready for a game, and practicing like it's a game," Copley said. "It kind of paid dividends (at the GLI). I have to just keep moving forward."
Moving forward has been a theme of sorts for the whole team after enjoying a refreshing winter break and coming off a confidence-boosting GLI championship.
"You have to enjoy the moment and look back on it, but now we have to focus on Minnesota Duluth. We've played them earlier, they're not an easy team, we're going to have to work hard, and (AMSOIL Arena) is a tough building to play in," Tech assistant captain Brad Stebner said. "You can't be overconfident, we have to remember the things that helped us win, and that was our hard work and dedication and everybody playing well."
After all, UMD will be motivated to bounce back from a disappointing performance at its holiday tournament, after losing to Maine and Ferris State at the Florida College Hockey Classic.
The Bulldogs have had the Huskies' number lately, too, as they are unbeaten in 10 of their last 11 meetings. Then again, they are 0-1-1 against Tech at AMSOIL Arena after Tech scored the final nine goals of its series there last year in a 4-4 tie and 5-0 win. The teams are 1-1-2 in their last four games.
One area Tech has improved on greatly since the last UMD series is its penalty kill, but with the Bulldogs boasting the second best power play unit in the WCHA at 22.1 percent, the Huskies will be put to the test. Only three other NCAA teams have scored more than the 21 UMD power play goals. Tech has killed off 20 straight penalties, and they get back arguably their best penalty killer in Blake Pietila.
It's a role Pietila certainly embraced while helping Team USA to a gold medal finish at the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia.
After becoming the first Tech player (out of 11 who have competed in the WJC) to win a medal, Pietila will now be faced with reverting back from being a fourth-line grinder for Team USA to being a top-line scorer again for the Huskies.
"Hopefully it helps his confidence, but he played a different role there than what we're asking him to here," said Pearson, who gave Pietila three days off this week. "Here he's our leading goal scorer (with 10), there I don't think he scored a goal and nobody cared. He was just checking other team's top lines. We're going to have to get him back in that mode where it's OK to score again."
Pietila will play this weekend, and next weekend against Bemidji State, before being given a longer break to return home the following weekend. He left the day after the North Dakota series and returned just this week.
He will rejoin a lineup that is now significantly more competitive (as detailed in a Jan. 3 Daily Mining Gazette article) with some players returning from injury and others stepping up big in Pietila's absence.
For lineup charts and updates throughout this weekend's games and each week, follow @steander on Twitter and interact with the #mtuhky hashtag.
"We're excited. Obviously the first half had some ups and downs, but I think the winter break was a good mental break and everybody is going to be back at it and after the GLI we're very confident and we're ready to go," Stebner said. "We want to make some waves here."
Faceoff in the 223rd and 224th all-time meetings between Tech and UMD - the final WCHA series between the teams - is slated for 8:07 p.m. (ET) tonight and Saturday.