Huskies match up in Mankato

HOUGHTON – Michigan Tech has won three of its last four hockey games and is 6-4-1 since Christmas, with all four losses by just one goal.

The Huskies may be flying under the radar with their second-half success, but wins this weekend in return to Western Collegiate Hockey Association play – on the road, against the nation’s No. 9 team – would certainly put Tech on people’s radar.

Minnesota State (18-9-3, 12-9-1 WCHA) is certainly one of the nation’s surprise teams this year after finishing 11th in the WCHA the past two years, only to see a surge to the top half of the league standings under first-year coach Mike Hastings. The Mavericks have won 15 of their last 20 games.

“They’re a good hockey team. Right now they’re in the NCAA Tournament if it started today,” Tech coach Mel Pearson said. “They’ve been playing extremely well, so they’ll be tough games for us, but we’ve played well on the road.”

The Huskies (10-14-4, 6-12-4 WCHA) are only 3-7-2 overall on the road, but they split at Nebraska Omaha two weeks ago, and lost a pair of one-goal games at Minnesota Duluth in mid-January. For what it’s worth, MSU swept UMD 4-2 and 5-1 last weekend.

“Mankato is a good team. They’re pretty high up in the standings, they play a pretty aggressive style,” said Tech junior forward Jacob Johnstone, who scored his first goal of the season in Tuesday’s 8-2 win over rival Northern Michigan. “We should have our work cut out for us this weekend, but we’re excited to go to Mankato, get on the big ice and see what we can do.”

Statistics can generally be massaged to say whatever is convenient, and even though MSU has a much better record than Tech this season, the teams are eerily similar statistically.

Tech scores 3.07 goals per game (3.73 since Christmas); MSU scores 3.1 (3.08 since Christmas). Tech allows 2.91 goals per game (only 1.91 since Christmas); MSU allows 2.3 (1.83 since Christmas).

The trend continues on the power play, where Tech converts 21.7 percent of opportunities, and MSU 22.1 percent. MSU’s penalty kill is much better at 83.8 percent compared to Tech’s 80.7 percent, but the Huskies have killed 88.1 percent of penalties since Christmas.

Freshman goaltending has played a critical role for both teams this year, and it could be argued Tech would be in a similar spot as MSU if its goaltending had been consistent all season long instead of only coming on since Christmas.

Stephon Williams has been a rock for the Mavericks with a .930 save percentage (.937 since Christmas) and 1.79 goals against average.

Pheonix Copley’s percentage’s since Christmas is .941 and his goals against average is 1.89.

The similarities don’t stop there. Both teams rely heavily on underclassmen for scoring production, with five of the top nine point getters being underclassmen for Tech, and six of nine for MSU. Both teams have similar scoring depth, each having 10 players with at least 10 points.

Sophomores Matt Leitner and Jean-Paul Lafontaine have 33 and 27 points this season for MSU; freshman Alex Petan and sophomore David Johnstone – who is on a four-game point streak – have 26 and 23 for Tech.

The biggest difference for the Mavericks over the Huskies is having senior leadership up front from Eriah Hayes, who has 16 goals and 28 points this year, and is coming off a seven-point weekend against UMD.

All in all, though, the teams match up extremely evenly – both also play an aggressive style – which shouldn’t be surprising since they split four games last season and are 4-4-1 against each other in the last nine meetings.

“We’re just going to have to go in there and continue to play with some energy, play with some pace, and we need good goaltending,” Pearson said. “They’re two big games for us. I know our boys are anxious to get on the road again and go in there and play in a good environment against a good team.”

Tech is 6-3-1 against teams that will be in the WCHA next season, and Minnesota State is the final such opponent this season.

Faceoff is slated for 8:37 p.m. (ET) tonight and 8:07 p.m. Saturday from the 4,832-seat Verizon Wireless Center.