Now a weekend into the second half of their Western Collegiate Hockey Association schedule, the Michigan Tech Huskies are busy looking for answers to one major question: Where will the offense come from?
A pair of losses against WCHA-leading Ferris State might not come as a surprise to many who have followed the Huskies over the last several seasons, what really stings is the fact that the Huskies lost both games by just a goal. They held the No. 3 Bulldogs to just four goals on the weekend.
Four is an interesting number. The Huskies have scored four goals in a game just twice this season, the first in a 4-1 victory over the Northern Michigan Wildcats, the second in a 4-4 tie with Bowling Green State.
No one knew exactly how the defection of Jujhar Khaira would affect the Huskies’ ability to score, but certainly it was not expected to cause this great an issue. The Huskies returned five of their top six scorers this season, so there was plenty of reason to believe that things would work out alright despite the loss of the 6’-3” Khaira.
It has not worked out that way to this point.
“Let’s be honest, we really miss J.J.,” said head coach Mel Pearson. “Jujhar was such a big force on our power play. You don’t replace those guys, at least for a year, because you don’t recruit. You can’t go out and find that guy in August. But, having said that, we just haven’t had somebody step up in his presence.”
Does the solution begin in goal?
Sophomore Pheonix Copley has actually been stronger this season than he was last. His goals against average has dropped over a full point from from 3.22 to 2.21. Classmate Jamie Phillips has seen his GAA rise, but only from 2.40 to 2.48. Neither has stolen a game from their opponent, however.
“Probably if you go through every game, there’s that one goal they’d like back that can make a huge difference,” said Pearson. “It puts a lot of pressure on them to have just a clean game. We need one of those games from our goalie. We need to find one that can win and get on a roll. One of them has got to take charge.”
Where do those three freshman defensemen fit into this equation? Is there something more they can be doing?
To ask much more of Shane Hanna, Chris Leibinger, or Cliff Watson is almost a crime. The trio has played in all but one game between the three of them. All three have been extremely valuable to the Huskies every night, helping the Huskies have the 16th-best defense in the country. Still, there is more Pearson asks of his young crew.
“The way teams are playing now, your defensemen get the puck a lot,” said Pearson. “So you have to get pucks through. Our defense has to be better.”
Pearson and his staff would like to see each of the youngsters do a better job of getting pucks through to the opposing goal. By doing so, it might help spark the forwards.
What about the forwards?
The bulk of the offensive weight has to lie on the shoulders of the forwards and the power play units. Injuries have played a large part in why both have struggled mightily this season. Junior David Johnstone has only dressed for 11 games this season as he has battled concussion issues while co-captain Blake Pietila has suffered through a couple of unspecified injuries.
With the younger Johnstone in the lineup, the Huskies are a more creative team offensively. When Pietila is scoring, they are a dangerous bunch for any opponent.
“I think having David Johnstone back will really help,” said Pearson. “Having David out for quite a long time and Blake Pietila was playing hurt pretty well the whole first half. Now those guys are getting healthy. I think you are going to see a difference.”
The power play is where the Huskies really miss Khaira’s large frame. Through the first 26 games of the season, the Huskies are just 13-for-121, which works out to 10.7%. Not exactly the numbers necessary to strike fear into opponents when they take penalties.
“This break is coming a good time,” said Pearson. “It will give us a chance to work on our power play.”
With the week off, the Huskies are looking ahead to their rematch with the Bulldogs next weekend. Trailing the fifth-place Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves by just two points, the Huskies need to start earning some key points during this stretch run to the playoffs. Next weekend will be a perfect time to begin that climb.
“I like the future of the team,” said Pearson. “I like the pieces of the puzzle. We just have to hang in there and find a way to turn it around.”