Huskies excited to face Nittany Lions
HOUGHTON — If you go by the schedule, the No. 13 Michigan Tech Huskies hockey team and the No. 11 Penn State Nittany Lions have been preparing for their upcoming NCAA Tournament matchup for over a week. The reality for both teams is that the preparation has been going on all season.
The Huskies, who are 24-10-4 on the season, were not expected to be here. They were picked to finish fifth in the CCHA after losing a tremendous chunk of their offense. In fact, they returned the fewest goals scored of any team in the conference.
However, senior goaltender Blake Pieitla had a lot to say about that, and he let his play do the talking all season long. Last week, he was named the CCHA Goaltender of the Year and the CCHA Player of the Year. He was named to the All-CCHA First Team, and he was named a Top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
The Huskies’ star owns the single season record for shutouts (10), the career record for shutouts (20), and has tied the school record for career wins at 58.
According to coach Joe Shawhan, Pietila’s play has been paramount to the success of the Huskies, and that he has earned all of his accolades.
“He’s been the most important component of the success we’ve had,” said Shawhan. “I don’t think anybody would argue that. Maybe, as significant as the performance he’s put in on the ice, is the amount of confidence that he’s given our team, maybe too much confidence at times. The amount of confidence he’s given our team in making them believe that we can win hockey games. You first have to be in the hockey games to win them.
“Then our guys have responded. He, both within his performance, and within the environment that performance has been able to create within the locker room, within the growth of the team, I think he’s made all of us, coaches and players, better. He’s given us an opportunity to achieve what we’ve achieved.”
Shawhan feels that his Coach of the Year award, this season, was really won by the efforts of the entire team.
“The Coach of the Year, I believe, is a team award,” he said. “Outside of winning a championship, that’s the biggest team award that you can get. They could put a Team of the Year or whatever on that. I know they assign a name to it, but the reality of it is that it’s a team award. You have to win hockey games to do that, and the team’s the one that wins the game.”
While the Huskies have exceeded their internal expectations, there is still plenty of room for growth. The Huskies spent the past week working on little things within their team game, trying to find the right combination to allow the team to move forward.
“It was a good week,” said Shawhan. “I think we got a lot out of it. We were able to focus on just our team, and try to improve on some of the areas that we felt needed improving on. I thought the guys responded well and had a good week of practice.”
Shawhan felt that the extra time not spent focusing on a conference title game was a good thing.
“I’d prefer, if you’re making it in the tournament, to have that week off to prepare,” he said, “for the most part, because I think that week has proved, over time, to be a valuable tool.
“Obviously, you want your playing to win the league, but if you’re not, if you don’t win the league, this is what I would prefer.”
The Huskies addressed the power play as part of their work last week, and while Shawhan is not satisfied with the results, which he says, as a coach, is normal. However, he and his staff want the players to understand that they have a chance in the tournament to make a statement by beating the Nittany Lions in the special teams battle, something they came up short in against Northern Michigan in the CCHA semifinals.
Scouting the Nittany Lions
Michigan Tech’s opponent in their regional matchup in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is the Nittany Lions, who are 21-15-1 on the season after dropping their Big Ten series against Ohio State in three games on March 3-5.
Like the Huskies, the Nittany Lions rely more on their defense this season than their high-skill forwards. Senior Kevin Wall leads the team in goals (16) and points (29) in 37 games. Fifth-year Ture Linden has a team-high 17 assists and 28 points in 37 games after spending four years at RPI.
Another fifth-year forward is very familiar with Michigan Tech. Ashton Calder has played in 36 games this season, scoring nine goals and 16 points.
“They’re quick,” Shawhan said. “They’re highly mobile on defense. They have a lot of speed and skill at the forward position. They shoot from anywhere. They like to get the puck to the net, and have people try to beat the cover, pick up loose pucks, draw penalties, and things like that.
“They tend to get a lot of shots because they put everything they can, they can be at the goal line, they can be anywhere, and throw the puck at the net if they see any sort of color that resembles there’s in those areas.
“So, they’re good through the neutral zone, both offensively and defensively, because of their speed. Offensively, they can get the puck, carry it and beat players 1-on-1, and, defensively, because they gap. They skate so well and gap so well that you have to manage the puck in the neutral zone or they turn into transition.”
Coach Guy Gadowsky has proven that teams that transition from club hockey to Division I hockey can have sustainable success, and that is something that impresses Shawhan.
“I know they’re very well coached,” said Shawhan. “I’m a big fan of Guy Gadowsky, the coach. I have admiration for him and the way he does his job.”
Penn State relies on junior Liam Souliere between the pipes in much the same way the Huskies do with Pietila. He has appeared in 34 games this season, going 18-14-1. He has a 2.52 goals against average and a .913 save percentage with two shutouts.
Shawhan admits that his team needs to play its best hockey to become the first Huskies team to win an NCAA Tournament game since 1981.
“We know that we have to play our best to be able to perform, and we’re looking forward to that opportunity,” Shawhan said.
The Huskies and Nittany Lions will face off Friday at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, at 5 p.m.