Rough road to positive outlook/Inside the Huskies
During his Monday morning radio show, Michigan Tech hockey coach Mel Pearson said Friday night’s 5-4 loss to Alaska Anchorage was tougher to take than the 2011 national championship loss when he was an assistant coach at the University of Michigan.
Maybe just because it’s fresher in his memory, but that still sums up the level of disappointment in not coming away with four points after dominating all but a few minutes in the series split with UAA.
Then again, maybe it’s just the kind of result the Huskies needed. Better now than the playoffs at least.
All year Pearson has been preaching about a ‘standard of play’ Tech needs in the third period, but sometimes, particularly with a team relying on so many young players, lessons need to be learned the hard way. It doesn’t get much harder than surrendering four unanswered goals to the last-place team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Fortunately for the Huskies, they got in almost exactly the same situation on Saturday night (leading 4-1) and finished strong with a 6-1 win.
“We struggled earlier in the year. Kind of like what Anchorage did, start out slow and try to work our way back. We have to do what we did this weekend, start strong and stay with it for 60 minutes,” freshman forward C.J. Eick said after Saturday’s game, in which he scored his first career goal.
The sting from Friday’s choke should help such statements extend beyond lip service, becoming application on the ice. There’s several signs that’s starting to happen.
Five of the six goals Saturday were scored by freshmen, who by this point in the year, are starting to play more like the veterans they’ll need to be.
“Our freshmen have contributed a lot, but it’s going to be our seniors and our juniors and our leaders that take us where we want to go down the stretch and the freshmen are following, so good for them,” Pearson said after Saturday’s game.
Just as the freshman production has been a positive lately, the upperclassmen finally are starting to contribute like they’re expected to.
Last year’s leading scorer Ryan Furne, Milos Gordic and Jacob Johnstone had been facing increasing pressure during the first half of the season after falling well short of their sophomore seasons. During the second half they’ve emerged after being reunited on a line. They were together much of their freshman year.
“We need that junior line to produce and give us some secondary scoring, and I thought they had a real good weekend,” Pearson said.
“Once we get that line going I think we’re going to be a dangerous team going down the stretch here.”
That’s the message Tech fans need to take: Peaking at the right time is everything.
It’s been a tough rollercoaster season, and the Huskies still continue to struggle to sustain momentum, but just about every sign is pointing up as the season winds down. In addition to the scoring coming from more sources, here’s a few more quick examples:
Tech is 5-4-1 since Christmas, and all four losses have been by just one goal.
Goaltending was the issue early in the year, but Pheonix Copley has been consistent of late. When he wasn’t on Friday night, goaltender coach Steve Shields wanted to see how he responded Saturday, and he was excellent.
Defensive breakdowns plagued Tech early on, but goals against are averaging 2.33 over the last 15 games after being at 3.92 during the first 12.
Again, Tech only needs to peak at the right time. Home ice for the playoffs, while not mathematically impossible, is almost out of the question, but the Huskies reached the WCHA Final Five after finishing eighth last year. They’re four points out of eighth right now, which is currently claimed by Colorado College.
Fittingly, Tech plays CC in the final series of the regular season, and the Tigers’ only other opponents are the same as Tech’s: league-leading St. Cloud State and fifth-place Minnesota State.
The Huskies travel to MSU this weekend for a critical late-season series, but first they have to play their archrivals, Northern Michigan, today in Houghton.
“It’s a big game for us,” Pearson said. “It looks good in the middle of summer when you schedule it, and you think it’s a good time. For (NMU coach) Walt (Kyle) and myself it’s a quick turnaround. It’s an important game, a rivalry game and then we both have big games on the back end of it.”
Tech is 5-3-1 this year against teams it’ll face in the WCHA next year, and all three games this week will fall into that category.
Unfortunately for Tech, one of the three losses to future WCHA teams was at NMU on Dec. 4, a 2-1 loss in which a Tech goal was called back.
The Huskies, who have lost four straight to the Wildcats, stormed out of Marquette in frustration that night. Even though it won’t mean anything for the conference standings, both teams will want to make a statement in their final non-conference meeting.
Regardless of what happens tonight at the Mac, just remember mid-March matters more than mid-February.
Stephen Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/steander and interact throughout the week about Tech hockey, including live updates during tonight’s game, with the #mtuhky hashtag.