No. 17 Huskies gear up for big weekend with Wildcats

Michigan Tech senior forward Matthew Quercia (22) and junior forward Parker Saretsky (15) battle for the puck against St. Thomas on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, in Houghton, Mich. (David Archambeau/For the Gazette)

HOUGHTON — For the last several seasons the No. 17 Michigan Tech Huskies and the No. 19 Northern Michigan Wildcats hockey teams were in the WCHA, they would close out the regular season facing each other. The rivalry weekend usually held an important meaning for one of the two squads and the other had the chance to spoiler, which ratcheted up the intensity accordingly.

The Huskies and Wildcats will face off at 6:37 p.m. Friday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. Saturday, the two teams will face off at 6:07 p.m. at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena.

This weekend, the two U.P. rivals will face off for the second time, several weeks earlier than normal. However, there is still much on the line for both squads. The Huskies trail the Bemidji State Beavers by five points for second in the CCHA while the Wildcats trail the Huskies by eight points for third in the conference standings.

While the fans may feel robbed at not having a last look at the Wildcats to close out the season, Huskies head coach Joe Shawhan actually likes what the CCHA has tried to do with the schedule this season. The conference set up two pods of four teams each, a western pod and an eastern one. The Huskies (12-8-1 overall, 9-5 CCHA) fall into the western pod with the No. 2 Minnesota State Mavericks, the Bemidji State Beavers, and the St. Thomas Tommies, which keeps from creating a situation where the Mavericks would be stuck traveling to Big Rapids to face the Ferris State Bulldogs for the final weekend of the year. 

“You know, it doesn’t matter,” said Shawhan, when asked if he would prefer to see the Wildcats to close out the season. “It’s always been a good series at the end of the year.”

Shawhan likes the balance the season continues to have.

“I’m happy with the schedule,” he said. “I like it’s been home/away. We don’t go for extended periods on the road. We don’t go to extended periods at home. So, it’s been, actually, very good.”

Facing the Wildcats

The Wildcats enter this weekend with confidence after splitting at the Berry Events Center with the then-No. 1 Mavericks. While the Huskies have been rather consistent throughout the season, the opposite is true for Northern Michigan.

The Wildcats (13-9-1 overall, 7-8-1 CCHA) opened the season with a sweep of the Tommies and then knocked off the USNTDP before losing their next five games to Notre Dame, the Beavers, and the Mavericks. They followed that stretch up with a sweep of the Boston Terriers. 

After splitting with the Huskies, the Wildcats won five of six with sweeps of Ferris State and then-No. Minnesota-Duluth sandwiched around a win and a tie with Bowling Green. After sweeping Minnesota-Duluth, they got swept on the road against the Lakers. 

In January, the Wildcats have gone 3-1 with a sweep of Colgate and split last weekend against the Mavericks.

A big reason for the Wildcats’ success is the play of their top forwards, Hank Crone and A.J. Vanderbeck. Crone, a transfer from Denver, leads the nation in points with 33, on the strength of 24 assists. The bulk of those assists have come on goals by Vanderbeck. A transfer from Ohio State, Vanderbeck sits second nationally with 17 goals and has put up 57 points in 52 games in Green and Gold.

In league play, Crone is second in the conference in scoring, Vanderbeck is fourth.

“They look for opportunities to go, and they can make plays,” Shawhan said. “They scored goals against us on that quick transition. They scored a couple last weekend against Mankato on that transition. When they get the chance, they score.

“Those guys are dynamic.”

Shawhan respects the hard work the Wildcats have put in to improve this season.

“They’re a good team,” he said. “They’re dynamic. Offensively, they can make plays. They compete hard. They have good team speed. They’ve been getting good goaltending. So, they’re a growing team that’s getting better, that’s growing as the year goes on. So (they are a) good team, (a) good opponent. It will be a great test for us.”

Pietila honored by the CCHA

The Huskies come into this weekend’s home-and-home with the Wildcats fresh off a road sweep of the Lake Superior State Lakers. The Huskies saw six different goal scorers strike over the course of the weekend, and junior goaltender Blake Pietila stopped all 32 shots he faced in a pair of 3-0 shutouts. He was named CCHA Goaltender of the Week for his efforts.

While Pietila struggled a bit stopping quality scoring chances earlier in the season, he has worked hard throughout the year to improve his consistency, something that Shawhan takes great pride in seeing out of his starting netminder.

“He’s been consistent for us,” Shawhan said. “That’s the biggest thing. He plays well within our system, within the way we play. 

“From the day got to campus, he’s just been very, very consistent, get the, you know, a good effort every time, every game, out of him. He blends in well with the way he is, his character. He just fits very well within our team. He’s very steady and calm, and he handles himself very well.”

Thorne steps up

Throughout the season, Shawhan has felt that sophomore defenseman Brett Thorne appeared poised to take another step for the Huskies. Shawhan likes the game his young offensive defenseman can provide, but feels there is another gear to his game that he has not found yet.

Coming into last weekend, Thorne had three goals and nine points in 19 games this season. Friday night, he added a goal and an assist to his totals.

“He had a really good weekend,” Shawhan said. “We had a few guys that really, I thought, really engaged in the way that we need them to…and he was one of them. I thought he had a tremendous weekend all through both nights. I thought he competed hard. He made good plays with the puck. He played with a lot of poise.”

Logan Pietila continues to evolve

A forward who continues to shine this season, in Shawhan’s opinion, is junior center Logan Pietila. He scored his eighth goal of the season Saturday to get the Huskies on the board. Shawhan remains impressed by how his hard work is paying off in games.

“I think Logan is up to eight goals now or something like that on the year, so he’s having a really good year for us,” said Shawhan. “He’s reformed his game. He’s around the puck a lot. He’s making plays in tight areas.”

Huskies ranking nationally

Coming into this weekend, the Huskies are ranked in the Top 5 nationally in goals against (1.84, fifth), power play percentage (26.98, fourth), penalty kill percentage (90.48, third), and penalty minutes per game (7.44, third).

Shawhan admits the goal he has for the team is to be more like Minnesota State and lead the country in goals for per game as well as goals against per game, but he likes the collective effort his group is putting out.

“We’re taking care of what we can take care of,” he said. ‘We’ve always been a good defensive team. We’ve, characteristically, been a good power play team. Last year, we were first or second in the league in power play as well. We’ve characteristically been that, so we try to control things we can control and, again, try to continue to recruit players that can (generate offense). There are opportunities for guys to put up a lot of points, because we generate a lot of offense. 

“So defensively, we’re doing our job, and I think offensively, to the best of our ability, we’re doing our job, our players doing the job.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today