What happened last weekend?
A key sweep of the Northern Michigan Wildcats set the Michigan Tech Huskies up well heading into their final bye week of the season. The Huskies started the weekend in alone in third in the WCHA standings. A pair of victories by Alaska over Ferris State has vaulted the Nanooks into a tie with the Huskies in the standings with 28 points. The Nanooks have more victories than the Huskies at this point, 13 to 12.
The Minnesota State Mavericks traveled last week to face the Lake Superior State Lakers. Friday night, the Mavericks struck just 2:41 into play and then got a pair of goals from Dylan Margonari along with another pair of goals in third to skate away with a 5-0 win. Saturday night, the Lakers played much better, twice taking one-goal leads. However, a three-goal stretch starting at the 8:04 of the second until 2:46 into the third paved the way for the Mavericks to complete the road sweep.
Timing is everything
Did this final bye week come at the right time for the Huskies? This is a very difficult question to answer, not just for those who watch the Huskies week in and week out, but also for the coaching staff.
“I would rather have continued to keep playing,” said head coach Mel Pearson. “Because Pheonix came off a real strong game. The intensity in both games was excellent.”
While Pearson may not have wanted to take a break, the team’s freshmen were beginning to show signs of their youth over the last couple of weeks. This fact was not lost on the coaching staff.
“We have had some moments lately where some of the freshmen have played like freshmen,” said Pearson. “It’s a long season. We’ve backed off in some of the practices and tried to change things to help keep them fresh and enthusiastic when they come to practice.”
Since the turn of the New Year, the Huskies have won eight times. All eight have come against WCHA opponents, which is why the Huskies find themselves playing a key final series this year.
Offense, offense, offense
One major of the reason for the Huskies’ eight second-half victories have been the return of junior winger David Johnstone. The younger Johnstone missed much of the first half of the season due to a pair of concussions, but since his return, the Huskies’ offense has exploded.
In his last 11 games, Johnstone has eight goals and 13 points.
“We knew David would come back,” said Pearson. “He’s a special player, especially offensively. His puck touches can be dynamite.”
More importantly than his own statistics, Johnstone has had a calming effect on linemates Blake Pietila and Reid Sturos since the trio were put together. Since joining with Johnstone, who is sixth on the Huskies in scoring, Pietila has jumped into the team lead in scoring, and Sturos has moved into fifth.
As the trio have elevated their game, the Huskies have also seen junior Tanner Kero, sophomore C.J. Eick, and freshman Mike Neville all raise their games.
Kero has notched eight points in his last eight games. Eick has seven in his last eight games. Neville has just two, but he has shone with his defensive play and his ability to log ice time in every situation.
The state of goaltending
A few weeks ago, Pearson and his staff had been looking for one of their three goalies grab the bull by the horns and demand the net. Since the sweep of Bowling Green on the road, sophomore Pheonix Copley seems to be that guy.
Copley has earned all four of the Huskies’ victories over that six-game stretch. With the four wins, Copley has improved to 10-10-5 on the season.
“Saturday he had a good game,” said Pearson. “The joke seems to be, when more shots he gets, the better he plays."
While his numbers, in terms of goals against, have not been as strong over this stretch, he has proven to be a steadying influence on the Huskies’ defensive corps. Pearson has been impressed with his work ethic over the bye week.
“Even in practice you can see a difference,” said Pearson. “He’s more tuned in. He’s working extremely hard in practice, a lot harder than he did. I think he’s in a good spot.”
A deeper look at the Mavericks
Picked to be one of the top squads in the WCHA before the season began, the Mavericks started out with a pair of losses to Providence. Further losses to Bemidji State, Bowling Green, and Minnesota by mid-November made things look very difficult for the Mavericks. Two seven-game winning streaks have helped catapult them into a tie with the Ferris State Bulldogs for the top seed.
Part of the reason for the turnaround has been the play of freshman goaltender Cole Huggins. Huggins has stolen the net from sophomore Stephon Williams, winning 16 times in 27 appearances. His 2.08 goals against average and four shutouts have been exactly what the Mavericks needed.
Up front, the Mavericks’ offense has been driven by the ability to draw power plays. Junior Jean-Paul Lafontaine (20-18=38) and senior Johnny McInnes (19-14=33) have each scored at least nine power play goals. It stands to reason that the best way to beat them is to not allow them the advantage.
While it is very strange for the Huskies to be facing the Mavericks for the first time at the end of the season, this series may be the type of challenge the Huskies need as they prepare to head into the playoffs.
Game time on Friday is 8:37 p.m. at the Verizon Wireless Center. Saturday night’s game will start 8:07 p.m.