While a first half record of 6-9-5 might be significantly less than head coach Mel Pearson and his staff may have predicted after last season’s strong finish, there is much in the Michigan Tech Huskies’ locker room to proud about as the Huskies enjoy their first off-week of the season before prepping to defend their Great Lakes Invitational crown in Detroit later this month.
Confidence appears to be riding higher in the locker room than one might think as the Huskies currently sit in a three-way tie for fifth thanks to a 4-4-4 record in Western Collegiate Hockey Association action. Much of that success comes despite missing three upperclassmen on the blue line, and seeing some their veteran forwards struggle to put up points of any kind.
The biggest reason for that confidence has been the play of the three freshmen on the blue line. The trio of Cliff Watson, Shane Hanna, and Chris Leibinger has missed a combined total of one game through the team’s first 20, and had that game been for the NCAA title, Leibinger would have been in the lineup despite being banged up.
“Chris is fine,” said Pearson. “If we were playing in the championship game, he would have played.”
The trio has been incredibly steady despite being thrown to the wolves from minute one on campus when it became clear that senior Daniel Sova and junior Justin Fillion were both going to miss significant time due to offseason surgery. A broken wrist for junior Jimmy Davis in practice after the Laurentian game forced Pearson to dress all three no matter who the Huskies were facing.
All three have done a tremendous job in their own end, and it shows as Watson and Leibinger are both +1 on the season. Hanna is even, which means none of the three have been on the ice for more goals against than they have been on for goals by the Huskies.
“They [all] will continue to get better,” said Pearson. “They have played beyond our expectations. You can’t ask any more than what they have given us defensively.”
Speaking of offense, Mike Neville has found a home on a line with sophomores Alex Petan and C.J. Eick, and has contributed two goals and nine points in 20 games. What makes him a special talent, however, is his attention to detail at both ends of the rink.
Neville can play in any situation for the Huskies, whether it be the power play, penalty kill, late game, etc. His +9 is seven points higher than his five closest teammates, who all have +2.
“He’s quietly had as good, if not better, a start than Jujhar had last year,” said Pearson. “The thing I like about him is that I can play him in any situation. I can play him against other team’s top lines because he is responsible defensively.”
Two more forwards are finding their way, having both been in the lineup more often than not in recent weeks. Reid Sturos and Brent Baltus have been impressed the coaching staff of late. Baltus came in with more attention, but both have played integral roles.
“They are both good players,” said Pearson. “They are both learning. I think they are both understanding what we are asking of them. They both have been really good with their work ethic.”
One more freshman who has made large strides is goaltender Matt Wintjes. On Friday night against Bowling Green last weekend, Wintjes was rewarded for his hard work by seeing his first action of the season.
While he only saw three shots in 16:30 of playing time, Wintjes did exactly what Pearson hoped he would do, and possibly even a bit more.
“I think he came into camp a little out of shape, not quite sure what to expect,” said Pearson. “The last month, he’s looked really good, and that’s why we wanted to get him in that game the other night. Just to see how he looks in a game situation.”
The deep freshman class includes two more forwards that Pearson and his staff are continuing to evaluate as the team moves into the second half. Tyler Heinonen made a big splash at Notre Dame, when he scored a pair of goals, but not scored since. Max Vallis has three assists through 10 games this season, but needs to find ways to use his speed more effectively.
If the efforts this season of Petan, Eick, and Pheonix Copley are any indication, the Huskies have plenty to look forward to as this large group gets more comfortable with their surroundings.