Michigan Tech Huskies returned to Houghton this Winter Carnival weekend with a pair of three-goal nights against UP rival Lake Superior State University. Friday night, the Huskies got three good-looking goals behind LSSU goaltender Gordon Defiel (G, So. - LSSU) on 27 shots, including one laser into the six inch gap over Defiel's blocker-side shoulder by Max Vallis (F. Sr. - MTU). Vallis scored three goals on the weekend and was named the series MVP. Unfortunately, Vallis was unable to properly kiss Winter Carnival Queen Savanna Curtis due to having teeth knocked out in a check from behind which earned J.T Henke (F, So. - LSSU) a 5-minute major and a game disqualification on Saturday Night. The two instead took a bow together and Curtis kissed Vallis' hand.
The energy in Saturday's game was spurred by a first-period short-handed goal by CJ Eick (F, Sr. - MTU). Eick's goal, similar to Vallis' on Friday, was also in the top corner and it really drew the crowd into the game. As noted in the THG Winter Carnival Series Preview, scoring the first goal of the game was important to beating the Lakers, and scoring short-handed engaged the team.
Three Lake Superior State skaters were ejected from Saturday's game. Mitch Hults (F, Fr. - LSSU) was ejected in the first period for elbow contact to the head of Dane Birks (F, Fr. - MTU). Birks, a Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, sat the remainder of the first period for concussion protocol. In the third, J.T. Henke (F, So. - LSSU) and Alex Globke (F, Jr. - LSSU) joined Hults in the locker room after they each earned their own ejections. Henke's check from behind sent Max Vallis into the half-board ledge, causing him to lose an unknown number of teeth. Globke was ejected from the game for spearing a linesman, which went on the record book as "abuse of officials".
Following the game, Huskies coach Mel Pearson gave LSSU Head Coach Damon Whitten a shove during the post-game handshake. "There's no need for the kind of hit that we saw in that game," Mel Pearson commented, in regards to the hit on Vallis, on the Feb. 8th edition of The Mel Pearson Show. "I didn't push him [Whitten]; I was just trying to get away from him... My emotions were pretty high after the game". Pearson further downplayed the role the major penalties had in his interaction with Whitten, noting, "It's no big deal. Damon and I go back a long way...I was just disappointed in how the game went."
The Huskies could have easily fallen into a trap by the Lakers and given up a game to a hot opposing goalie. This would have been very easy for a team on the cusp of the top of the WCHA to do, and it has happened already this season. Both Defiel and Nick Kossoff (G, Fr. - LSSU) have shown they can steal games away from teams as formidable as Bowling Green. However, Mel Pearson and the Huskies continued with the high intensity which has made them successful in 2016 and received their four-point reward in the standings. Tech is now 5-0-3 since the new year.
The way this series wrapped up serves as a real measuring stick for the advancement the Mel Pearson regime has made for the Tech Hockey program. LSSU is a strong, physical team with solid goaltenders (who see a lot of shots) at its' core. A decade ago, MTU needed to put faith on excellent goaltending or catching a team off-guard on Friday night. Occassionally when the game would break down Saturday night, the team would be steamrolled or a slugfest could ensue. This weekend in the recently renovated John MacInnes Student Ice Arena, Tech was a favorite over a team that looks a lot like Huskies of ten years ago. Coach Pearson has a consistent plan for steadily concentrating on every week, which now allows for these trap weekends to exist, and then goes further to avoid those pitfalls. The team's collected reaction to the Vallis hit shows the kind of culture that Coach Pearson has instilled in the team for when games get out of hand. "I give our guys a ton of credit," Pearson said. "When that hit occurred, all hell could have broken loose." Pearson went on further, "There's nobody grabbing everyone, trying to cross check anyone in the head or anything... I give them all the props in the world."
Jamie Phillips (G, Sr. - MTU) was one penalty shot away from shutting out the Lakers this weekend. Phillips was solid all weekend, earning the title of second-winningest MTU goaltender ever with the shutout victory on Friday. Phillips now has 50 career wins with Michigan Tech. Head Coach Mel Pearson noted, "That may have been his best weekend in a long time," during the Feb. 8th edition of The Mel Pearson Show.
An exciting moment for the 3500 fans in attendance, a penalty shot was awarded when Reid Sturos (F, Jr. - MTU) dislodged the net while attempting to swat a flying puck out from in front of the net during a play which was breaking down. Sturos was called for an intentional delay of game, although he was being pushed into the net by a Laker crashing the net at the same time. Regardless, that penalty shot at 19:05 in the third period of Saturday's match was off the stick of Gage Torrel (F, Fr. - LSSU) and was the first goal for LSSU in their last four games.
Phillips now boasts a 1.84 GAA inside the WCHA (2.00 GAA overall). Michigan Tech has the WCHA's best offense with 3.00 goals per game this season, but that doesn't mean that the Huskies were automatically going to blow out LSSU this weekend. While statistically the Lakers outshot MTU 31-27 on Friday, MTU maintained significantly more offensive zone time. That offensive pressure resulted in a greater number of excellent scoring chances, many of which were denied by LSSU goaltender Gordon Defiel. Saturday saw the Laker goalie Nick Kossoff stop 45 of 48 Huskies shots on goal. Michigan Tech peppered the freshman with more than twice as many shots as Phillips that evening. Phillips saw 22.
Tech Moving Up in Rankings
With the two wins this weekend, MTU is now 2nd in ranking in the WCHA standings, ahead of BGSU on tie breakers. Michigan Tech's success in 2016 has been noticed both by the pollsters and mathematically in the PWR. The Huskies gained first place in the THG WCHA Web Media Poll for the first time this season. Nationally, MTU has moved into #14 in the USCHO.com coaches poll and #14 in the USA Today/USA Hockey poll. In the national Pairwise rankings, MTU moved up to 20th (see note below for further PWR information). It is important to note that the wins over LSSU are not as valuable for MTU's attempt to gain ground on the field of 16 as those against a higher ranked MSU or BGSU. MTU does not have any further games with teams outranking them this season, so future changes to their PWR may depend on how teams they have played this season are finishing the year.
THG Three MTU stars of the weekend:
Max Vallis (3G, lost teeth, Winter Carnival MVP)
Jamie Phillips (1 SO, 98.1 SV%)
C.J. Eick (1SHG)
Mark Auk - Lower body injury on Friday
Max Vallis - Lost teeth on Saturday
WCHA Wrap Up
#8 University of Alaska-Anchorage at #5 Northern Michigan University
Friday: 2-3, Saturday: 4-5
A split for two teams fighting to improve their positions in the WCHA standings, NMU trying to get to home ice while Anchorage is fighting to maintain a playoff appearance. Mathias Dahlström (G, Jr. - NMU) started both nights for the Wildcats and stopped 42 of 48 shots on goal. Dahlström has seen his ice time greatly reduced this season with tandem freshman goaltenders Atte Tolvanen (G, Fr. - NMU) and Mathias Israelsson (G, Fr. - NMU) playing extremely well.
Good News for Huskies Fans: These were close games. While NMU did edge the win out, the Wildcats had 10 penalties
Bad News for Huskies Fans: NMU has a strong penalty kill, in the top 6 in the nation at 86.6%.
#2(t) Bowling Green State University at #1 Minnesota State University
Friday: 1-5, Saturday: 3-1
The marquee WCHA matchup of the weekend ended in the much-predicted split, even though the games were far from predictable. Minnesota State took Friday's competition 5-1, with three special teams goals. MSU scored one on the power play and two short-handed. Both short-handed goals were scored on the same PK for the Mavericks by Bryce Gervais (F, Sr. - MSU) and assisted by Pittsburgh draftee Teddy Blueger (F, Sr. - MSU).
Good News for Huskies Fans: This split allowed the Huskies to gain ground on both MSU and BGSU in the WCHA standings. Tech now sits at #2 in the WCHA with tiebreakers over BGSU. The Black and Gold have taken three of four points from each of these teams recently.
Bad News for Huskies Fans: MTU will most likely need to go through one or both of these teams in the WCHA Final Five.
#4 Ferris State University at #9 University of Alaska
Friday: 4-0, Saturday: 2-1 OT
Like the UAA-NMU series, both of these teams are fighting for playoff positions. The struggling Alaska Nanooks are currently on the outside looking in, while FSU is trying to keep pace with Tech for a higher seed. Darren Smith (G, Fr. - FSU) received the shutout victory Friday night, stopping all 20 Alaska shots he faced. Smith now has a 1.94 GAA and a 93.3 SV% on the season.
Good News for Huskies Fans: Alaska took Ferris State to OT on Saturday and kept the score low. The Nanooks have had a rough year compared to last season and any indication that FSU may be wavering as the season progresses is good news.
Bad News for Huskies Fans: FSU gained four more points, and kept pace with MTU. Both teams have similar remaining schedules.
Elsewhere in college hockey
Penn State University and the University of Minnesota split on the weekend, helping MTU in the PWR. Continue to look for potential breakdowns throughout the remaining schedule by teams above Tech in the PWR with tough remaining schedules, such as Denver (#12). Denver still has to face North Dakota (#3), Western Michigan (#35) and Nebraska-Omaha (#10). Losses by teams above the Huskies may still allow the Huskies to grab a last-minute at-large bid to the NCAA tournament
Pairwise Background Information
The teams given bids to the Division I NCAA hockey tournament are determined by a mathematical system to be the top teams in the nation, with six automatic bids given to each of the six conference tournament champions. The Pairwise Ranking system (PWR) is the commonly referred-to system which historically mirrors the NCAA system. Ideally, the top 16 teams in the PWR receive bids; however a conference champ will receive a bid regardless of PWR ranking. For those unfamiliar with the PWR in NCAA, you can go here and read more.