Tech hosts Alabama Huntsville to begin busy January

It’s a matchup that months ago looked like wouldn’t happen again.

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in March led to sweeping budget changes across all industries. College hockey, like all other sports, wasn’t immune to the crippling financial effects brought about in the quiet idle wake of the pandemic.

Among the impacts of those effects was Alabama Huntsville folding its hockey program as part of the university’s broader effort to reduce expenditures. But within weeks, donors and supporters cobbled together enough funding to prop up the Chargers hockey program at least for another season.

Michigan Tech (4-3-1) hosts Alabama Huntsville in a Saturday-Sunday series. Puck drop is 4:07 p.m. and 2:07 p.m., respectively.

It’s a busy month for the Huskies, who play 10 of their 26 regular season games this month.

The Chargers (0-3-1) tied and lost to Lake Superior State in early December. A Dec. 9 game at Ferris State was canceled.

Tech enters the weekend with a three-game win streak including a sweep Dec. 18-19 against Northern Michigan. The Huskies won the getaway game at Bemidji State 3-0 on Dec. 13 to start the win streak.

While in a normal season without the Covid pandemic the Huskies would be coming off the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, they’re instead coming off a rare holiday break. The 66th annual GLI was among a litany of sporting events scrubbed because of the pandemic.

The Huskies have been anchored in goal so far this season by strong play from sophomore Blake Pietila. Among goalies that have played at least three games, he has the third-best save percentage (.955) in the country, behind Minnesota’s Jack LaFontaine (.965) and Miami’s Ludvig Persson (.962). Pietila also has a 1.43 goals-against average.

The Huskies average an identical 2.12 goals both scored and allowed per game so far. Tech’s offense of 2.12 goals scored is 36th in the country, while the 2.12 goals allowed is the ninth-lowest. But take it with a grain of salt — the rankings are skewed by teams that have played a varying amount of games because of the pandemic.

A limiting factor for the Huskies’ offensive production has been their 70 penalty minutes. It’s the second-most penalty minutes in the WCHA, behind Bowling Green’s 106. Fortunately for Tech, the team so far boasts the nation’s fourth-best penalty kill at 95%, an effective enough damage control for shortening the bench and weathering the storm in the defensive zone. While penalty minutes may not automatically lower the Huskies’ offensive production, all that time on the penalty kill can (and has) stunt Tech’s momentum on offense.

Tech had 17 penalty minutes in a 2-0 loss to Minnesota State on Dec. 7. The Mavericks had 12 penalty minutes of their own, but the Huskies took three penalties in the first period, and Minnesota State took that offensive zone time and ran with it, peppering Pietila with 37 total shots, including a 17-1 shot advantage in the second period.

Despite Tech being short-handed 21 times and racking up the 70 penalty minutes, the Huskies have also drawn 22 power-play opportunities, scoring one power-play goal.

The Tech penalty kill will need to stay strong if the Huskies return to the box. The Chargers’ 30.8% power-play is second-best in the WCHA and fourth-best in the country, scoring four goals in 13 opportunities.

Pietila named WCHA Goalie of the Month

Pietila was named the conference’s Goaltender of the Month.

Pietila posted four wins and was second in the conference with a 1.52 GAA. It’s the first monthly honor for Pietila, whose seven games played is already one more than he played all of last season.


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