Steady young defensemen lead Tech into BG series

HOUGHTON – Much has been written or said about the Michigan Tech hockey team’s struggle to score goals this season.

But there is another, much shinier side of the coin.

While the Huskies labor to put the puck in the back of the net, no other team in the WCHA has been as good as preventing opposing teams from doing so. Heading into Friday’s series with Bowling Green, Tech leads the 10-team conference in goals allowed at a sterling 2.28 per game, and it is courtesy of that number that the Black and Gold currently sit in a tie for fourth place nearing the midpoint of the season.

“That was really being stressed in the preseason when I got here,” Tech freshman defenseman Cliff Watson said. “From day one defense has been preached first and foremost, to the forwards, D-corps and goaltenders.”

In the Huskies locker room stands a board. And on that board lies six separate team goals for the year, written and decided by the players in the preseason.

One of the goals reads – “Top-15 in the nation in goals allowed.”

Top 15:?how did Tech come to that specific number?

Because, of those 15, nine qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season. And if you extend the number to top-20 in goals allowed, than 13 of the 16 tourney teams were drawn from upper-echelon defenses.

This year, the Huskies are tied for 10th nationally in preventing goals.

“We looked at the teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year, and you can almost just run down the list of top teams in goals allowed,” MTU coach Mel Pearson said. “I thought that was a pretty bold choice.”

“Putting the goal up there on the board has really helped shift the team’s focus and helped the defense come along,” Tech senior defenseman and captain Brad Stebner said. “Defense and forwards have all bought into system.

“We are right on track.”

When looking at goals allowed, the obvious place to start is the goaltending.

Sophomores Pheonix Copley and Jamie Phillips have been superb this season, as Copley sits second in the WCHA in goals against average and fourth in save percentage at 92.8 percent.

But while the netminders have been solid all year, perhaps most impressive has been the introduction of three freshmen among the defensemen.

Shane Hanna, Chris Leibinger and Watson have appeared in every game this season for Tech, three of just the nine players to do so.

Each paired with an upperclassman, the trio has been rock steady in the back, making the transition from juniors to college look as natural as skating.

It isn’t.

“I think it is the hardest position to adjust to in college hockey,” Pearson said. “It is just the pressure. You have to turn around and go back for the puck and guys are coming at you and you have to make a quick decision and play under pressure.”

“I remember being a freshman, those first couple games you are pretty nervous and shaky with the puck but they have shown incredible poise,” Stebner added. “They have done a great job.”

It is that poise that seems to set the group apart.

Preseason injuries to Justin Fillion and Daniel Sova forced Pearson to roll with the freshmen whether he liked it or not.

“We are going, oh no, three freshmen,” Pearson recalled.

They responded with a combined plus/minus of plus-5 and have taken just 15 penalties in 18 games.

Each game they grow, too.

After a slow start, Hanna is making his presence felt offensively, with six points and 29 shots, most of any defenseman.

Watson and Leibinger have proven to be adept transitioning the puck to the forwards and kept mistakes to a minimum.

“My focus coming in was just to be hard to play against,” Watson said. “I want to be tough, make it difficult to keep the puck and then move pucks up to the forwards as quick as possible. Help the transition game. Just be simple.”

Watson said being paired with an upperclassman – Riley Sweeney in his case – has made the transition easier on all of them.

There is someone experienced to help with the communication, someone to offer a quick word after a shift.

With seven of the first eight games on the road this season, Pearson made sure to room the freshmen with their junior or senior counterparts to build that chemistry early and away from the rink.

“It is a good balance,” Watson said. “The younger guys are good listeners and good learners I think. You can see the Sova helping Leibinger or Sweeney helping me.”

Bowling Green brings the second-highest goals per game rate (3.0) to the John MacInnes Student Ice Arena tonight, making for an interesting matchup of strength against strength.

Once again, Pearson will rely on his freshmen trio to help keep Copley clean in net.

He is much more comfortable with that notion now than he was two months ago.

“I think our freshmen have done an incredible job coming in and being able to play right away. To be first in defense in our conference says a lot about them,” Stebner said.