What happened last weekend?
Freshman winger Alex Petan’s two power play goals Friday night were not enough to overcome an amped up No. 9 Minnesota State Mavericks squad, who regained a one-goal lead just three minutes after Petan tied the game with his second of the night. Freshman goaltender Pheonix Copley made 32 saves in the 4-2 loss.
Saturday’s score looks worse on paper, with the Mavericks winning 6-1, but the score was not indicative of the nature of the game. Copley surrendered some soft goals, and the Huskies hit several pipes before finally breaking through when freshman winger C.J. Eick netted his second of the season on a breakaway 14:06 through the third period. The Huskies peppered Mavericks’ goalie Stephon Williams with 38 shots in the loss.
How can this season be considered better than last year?
It is easy on the surface to look at the Michigan Tech Huskies’ season this season with their 10-16-4 overall record and question whether any measurable progress is being made. This is especially compounded by the fact that Season One of the Mel Pearson era saw the Huskies post a 16-19-4 record overall and 11-13-4 in Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) play.
While the Huskies, who currently sport a 6-14-4 record in WCHA action, currently sit 11th out of 12 teams, if the Huskies catch fire against St. Cloud State and Colorado College, they could finish within a game of last year’s team, vaulting as high as eighth in the process.
“We seem to play better against the better teams,” said Pearson. “Anybody on the schedule is going to be a battle. Every night is a battle in the league. Every team is pretty good…it just goes to show you that every night is a battle, it doesn’t matter who you are playing.”
The reality of the situation last season was the fact that the Huskies saw three seniors carry the team throughout much of the season. Captain Brett Olson led the Huskies in scoring with 20 assists and 30 points in 39 games. Jordan Baker chipped in 28 points in 39 games. Josh Robinson played 35 games, winning 15 of them while notching three shutouts.
This season’s group might actually be more impressive statistically despite the lack of victories. Petan has 28 points in 30 games to lead the squad. Four more underclassmen have at least 19 points, including sophomore David Johnstone who is again second on the team in points with a team-high 16 assists and 24 points in 27 games. Copley has seven victories and three shutouts in 20 games played.
“I think our confidence level, offensively, is as high as it’s been all year,” said Pearson. “You have to earn your confidence, and once you get it, it’s hard to take it away.”
So if this squad is better, why isn’t it winning?
Until recently, the bulk of the Huskies’ offense was coming from a select group of young players, none having more than a season of college hockey under their belts.
“I think you are seeing the inconsistencies of a young team and a team still trying to find its identity a little bit,” said Pearson. “I think the goaltending and defensive at the start of the year was not good. We had a tough schedule. We are playing much better.”
While the lack of veteran scoring is a reasonable place to start when looking at how the Huskies have struggled this season, a simpler explanation may be at fault: teams are no longer taking the Huskies for granted.
The Huskies had just one winning season under Jamie Russell back in 2006-07, when they got to the play-in game for the WCHA Final Five. That season had been the first in nine years where the Huskies had 17 or more victories and only the second since 1997-98 that the Huskies had a double-digit victory total.
In the three years prior to Pearson taking the helm, the Huskies won a combined 15 times. Teams came into the MacInnes Student Ice Arena looking for easy victories, and often got them. Since taking the reigns, Pearson’s squads have 26 wins, and no team that waltzes into the MacInnes comes away with easy points. Just ask the Northern Michigan Wildcats, whom the Huskies pasted 8-2 last Tuesday night.
Where does the Mel Pearson era compare with previous coaches?
The Pearson era has seen the Huskies post a 26-35-8 record thus far, good for a .435 winning percentage. No head coach since Jim Nahrgang, who replaced John MacInnes, has done that well since 1983.
MacInnes posted a 25-25-6 record during his first two seasons behind the Huskies’ bench. It took him five seasons to win his first WCHA regular season title. Of course, that was 1961-62, where the Huskies not only won the WCHA title, they won the playoff title and the NCAA title as well, thanks to a magical 29-3-0 run.
While it is too early to believe that Michigan Tech is just three more seasons away from its fourth NCAA title, an appearance in the tournament soon is probably not out of the question.