Huskies ready to face No. 2 Mavericks in tough road series
MANKATO, Minn. — With a comeback win on Friday, 6-4, and a 6-1 drubbing on Saturday, the Michigan Tech Huskies hockey team showed resilience to a slow start on Friday and then carried the strong play that followed that period through the rest of the weekend.
The Huskies outscored the visiting Ferris State Bulldogs, 11-2, after that opening period on Friday.
The weekend’s results helped the Huskies improve to 8-5 on the year with a 5-3 record in CCHA play, good for fourth with 17 points. The Huskies have still played less games than Northern Michigan and No. 2 Minnesota State, their opponent this weekend.
The Huskies and Mavericks are set to have their opening faceoff on Friday at 8:07 p.m. at the Verizon Center in Mankato. Saturday, the two teams will go at it at 7:07 p.m.
After a couple of days to rest and reflect, head coach Joe Shawhan still had no answers for what led to the Huskies’ 3-1 deficit Friday after 20 minutes. However, he remained impressed with how well the team responded after the leaders of the group demanded better of their teammates.
“No explanation for the start, but I think the guys realized it,” he said. “That was the good thing. The important thing was we were able to find our game. Oftentimes, when a team doesn’t show up, they never get on track. I give our guys a ton of credit for finding their game, for focusing in between the first and second period, and finding their game for the rest of the weekend.”
Shawhan admitted that when they sat down with the team between the first and second periods, the focus needed to shift. The leaders had challenged the team to play better, and they responded.
“Our focus after the start was to try to play with more speed and to take better care of the puck,” he said. “We didn’t manage the puck, I didn’t think, well in the first period. I didn’t think we played with pace. That’s a bad combination, where you’re turning the puck over and you’re drifting.”
Leading by example
The line of co-captain Trenton Bliss, Brian Halonen, and Tommy Parrottino were instrumental in getting the team going Friday. Bliss scored twice and Halonen added one of his own to help get the team both get back to even and then to take the lead. All three goals the line scored came within 3-to-5 feet of the net.
“(If) you want to get success, you go to the places where you have success,” said Shawhan. “There’s a lot of analogies to it, but things happen at the net. That’s where things are going to happen, and I’ll leave it at that. Good things will happen if you’re around the net, and you’re getting the puck to the net.”
Ashbrook heating up
After the impressive display from the team’s top line, winger Tristan Ashbrook chipped in with a pair of goals to help create some separation between the Huskies and the Bulldogs. He did the same thing again on Saturday, giving him six goals in his last four games. What is even more impressive is that his goals are coming in different ways, meaning he is finding ways to get the puck and then make plays, rather than just waiting for something to happen.
“They’re not all coming off the rush,” Shawhan said. “They’re not all coming when someone does work and gives him time and space. He’s getting goals off the forecheck, off special teams, off the rush, off rebound situations.
“That’s where you see an increased understanding about the game.”
He was named CCHA Forward of the Week for his efforts.
Turnovers lead to goals against
While things have been good up front, on the back end, Shawhan would like to see the Huskies play smarter with the puck. A number of goals the Huskies have given up this season have come off of turnovers, something the Huskies can control with better focus while managing the puck.
“Scoring more, we’ve given up more, but when we really analyze it, we aren’t giving up more, we’re letting in more goals,” said Shawhan. “I think our goaltending has been good, but not great over the last month or so. Saying that, we also make some glaring mistakes, and it’s primarily with turnovers.
“That’s where we have to improve, on that area, and not giving free opportunities.
Shawhan feels it isn’t so much that goaltender Blake Pietila is struggling so much as it is that the chances he is facing are better.
“We’re just so used to Blake bailing us out,” Shawhan said. “He doesn’t get a ton of shots against, but the ones he gets are really good ones. He bails us out (like) Grant Fuhr back in the day playing for Edmonton. Yes, not a lot of chances against, but the breakaways or things like that, we’re used to him bailing us out. He hasn’t been all world, but he’s still been good. He’s still over 90% save percentage in league play. We can’t leave him out to dry.”
Two different CCHA opponents have found a way to beat the Mavericks this season, but that is it. The Mavericks hold a six-point lead over both Bemidji State and Northern Michigan at this point in the season as they come off a split last weekend at Lake Superior State where they held the Lakers to an impressive 15 shots against over the two games.
The Mavericks enter the weekend 12-4 overall and 8-2 in CCHA play. Junior Nathan Smith leads the way with nine goals and 22 points in just 16 games. Junior Ryan Sandelin has also been strong with nine goals and 15 points. Classmate Brendan Furry leads the team in assists (15) and sits second in points (19).
In goal, senior Dryden McKay remains impressive, racking up a 12-3 record in 15 starts with a 1.42 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.
Shawhan has three areas of the game to watch during the series.
“We certainly can’t turn the puck over,” he said. “We have to manage the puck. Special teams will be a big part. We have to stay out of the box. They draw enough power penalties as it is and they’re always getting the power play. The special teams part of it has to be good. Goaltending, obviously, has to be good. You have to match Dryden McKay, but first you have to get to Dryden McKay.”