Huskies head to Omaha

HOUGHTON – Two weeks after taking three points from Bemidji State, the Michigan Tech hockey team is making its longest bus trip of the season to take on the No. 2 team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association: Nebraska Omaha.

The No. 14 Mavericks (15-9-2, 11-5-2 WCHA; 24 points tied with Minnesota) have five series sweeps this season, including one in November against the Huskies (7-12-4, 4-10-4 WCHA) in Houghton, but at least Tech won’t have to see Zahn Raubenheimer this time around.

The UNO junior forward, who scored two goals each night against Tech (2-1, 5-3 scores) last time around, is out with a knee injury. Then again, the Huskies still have plenty of weapons to prepare for.

Forward Ryan Walters is among the contenders for the Hobey Baker Award with his nation-leading 39 points – Tech’s leading point getter is Alex Petan with 20. Matt White, who didn’t travel to Houghton, has 19 points in his last 13 games. Josh Archibald has 13 goals in WCHA games – Tech’s leading scorer Blake Pietila has 13 overall. That doesn’t even include the UNO defense, which is fifth in the nation with 64 goals against in 26 games.

The Huskies will certainly be put to the test against a team they haven’t beat since 1997 – the Mavs’ first year in existence – and which is 8-3-1 at home this year, but Tech has shown significant signs of improvement since the first UNO series.

The Huskies’ defense gave up 3.92 goals on average in the first 12 games of the year, but Tech has only allowed 2.18 over the last 11. The penalty kill has also improved from 74.1 percent through the first 12 games to 89.7 percent in the last 11, bringing the season total to 81.1 percent.

A big part of that defensive improvement has been more consistent goaltending from freshman Pheonix Copley, who has a 1.32 goals against average and .961 save percentage over his last six games.

Some good signs exist on offense, too, where Pietila has returned to his scoring role after playing more of a defensive role at the World Junior Championships. Junior Ryan Furne has also emerged of late, scoring two goals in his last three games (not including the two he had in last Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage) after being held without a goal his previous 15 games.

“I’m pleased with a lot of things going on, especially our team defense and goals against,” Tech coach Mel Pearson, who could not be reached for comment on UNO, said in a previous Daily Mining Gazette interview. “We’re starting to see that come down and that’s critical moving forward to having success in the second half.”

Pearson was concerned about the possible impact yet another bye week would have on the team, hence the intrasquad scrimmage, but the Huskies are 4-0-0 in weekends after byes against opponents besides Minnesota-Duluth (0-3-1 in those two series).

While Tech will look to overcome the potential loss of momentum from not playing an opponent last weekend, UNO will look to avoid overlooking Tech to get to next weekend when it plays in its first outdoor game in school history against North Dakota.

In any case, four critical WCHA points are up for grabs this weekend, and faceoff for tonight’s game at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha is slated for 8:37 (ET). Saturday’s game starts at 8:07 p.m.