For young forwards, a battle for ice time

HOUGHTON – Last season, now Michigan Tech hockey freshman Brent Baltus spent the year honing his abilities in the British Columbia Hockey League, compiling 24 goals and 52 points while being named the BCHL’s Interior Conference MVP.

This season, now in a Husky sweater, Baltus has suited up for just six of 10 games, scoring his first career goal last Saturday in the win over Michigan State.

With 17 forwards on the Tech roster and only 12 spots available each game, this is the dilemma the third and fourth line skaters face.

How to earn ice time? How to keep sharp when you don’t? How to balance the natural inclination to produce offensively yet fulfill the defensive demands required of a third or fourth liner?

For players used to serving as a focal point for their team’s offense in junior (or high school) leagues, the transition can be a difficult one to make.

“It is a new experience for me coming in to college hockey,” Baltus said. “This is kind of the first time I’ve had to (fight for ice time), but you have to go through these growing pains at the next level. You have to get used to it and you have to battle through it. when you come to the rink you have to show up.”

The energy lines played a vital role in the sweep of Michigan State last weekend, helping the Huskies maintain their superior jump from shift to shift while outshooting the Spartans 68-38.

Baltus got the only goal for the third and fourth liners, but they created plenty of other chances and forced a bevy of MSU turnovers.

With the team sitting at 1-6-1 entering last weekend, it was exactly the type of performance Tech needed to help right its season entering WCHA play this Friday at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena against Lake Superior State (5-2-1).

“It has to be all 12 forwards going the whole game,” Tech sophomore Malcolm Gould said. “When you have your third and fourth line outworking their third and fourth line, that makes it easier on the team as a whole and you can win games like that.”

On Friday, freshmen Max Vallis and Tyler Heinonen got the nod but were replaced with Baltus and Gould Saturday. It was just the third game for Gould this season after playing in 27 (nine points) last year.

This is the juggling act head coach Mel Pearson deals with on a weekly basis. Who to ride and when?

It comes down to a combination of practice performance, energy, line chemistry and sometimes, pure gut feeling.

“We tell them that what they do between Monday and Thursday really gives us an indication of who will play on the weekend,” Pearson said. “We talk quite a bit as coaches after practice, ‘who did you like today? Who didn’t you like today?’

“The most important thing for us is to communicate with them. We explain to them why we are doing what we do, and listen to their concerns, what’s on their mind. you do have to make sure a guy’s confidence doesn’t get too low or too far behind.”

The maintaining of confidence becomes the most difficult issue for a player not seeing game time every week.

Until Saturday, Gould had not cracked the lineup since the season-opening series at Minnesota-Duluth, and his lack of match sharpness reared when he shot too quickly on a grade-A chance in the second period.

Pearson admitted a more in-form skater may have taken his time and done better with the opportunity.

“You eyes kind of light up after it has been a while,” Gould said. “But if you get down on yourself or get frustrated, that’s when you start fighting the puck even more. You have to keep your chin up and keep working.”

For Baltus and Gould, a “defense-first” mentality takes hold, believing the offensive opportunities will come eventually if they can make themselves useful to the team in non-scoring areas.

“You just want to do whatever you can to help the team,” Gould said. “A good shift in the defensive zone or a good hit to create a play. If I can create something point-wise that’s a bonus, but at the end of the day you just have to do all the little things you can so the team can walk off with a win.”

“You always get offensive chances when you are playing the right way,” Baltus added.

With a stretch of 10 straight WCHA games starting Friday, Tech needs its third and fourth line to be as sharp as possible with the stakes raised.

“We have five lines this week, but we can only dress four,” Pearson said. “And all five lines look really good. That’s definitely a good thing, but it makes for some tough decisions.”