What happened last weekend?
The Michigan Tech Huskies proved to the then-No. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers that every Western Collegiate Hockey Association weekend is a tough one, as the Huskies won Friday night 5–3 and skated to a 2–2 tie until the final 3:35 Saturday night. Freshman winger Alex Petan earned the No. 3 spot in the ESPN Top Plays of Friday night with his highlight reel goal.
The No. 5 Denver Pioneers rolled to a 5–1 win Friday night over UMass Lowell with five different goal scorers involved. On Saturday, the Pioneers again rolled, this time to a 5–2 victory over Air Force. Junior forward Nick Shore notched three goals in the victory. Senior Adam Murray and junior Sam Brittain split duties in net.
What were the positives the Huskies learned about themselves?
With the excellent play of their fourth line – freshman C.J. Eick, junior Dennis Rix, and senior Chad Pietila – the Huskies have four lines that can be dangerous every time they take the ice. Rix and Pietila both scored in Friday’s game, and Pietila struck again Saturday night. He also had a golden opportunity to tie the game a minute after the Gophers took their final lead, but his shot was stopped.
“Our character really showed,” said Huskies head coach Mel Pearson. “I was happy with our speed. Chad Pietila, who has been hotter than anyone, gets a golden opportunity to tie the game [Saturday night] late. C.J. is going to find a way to score goals.”
It appears that the Huskies have found their backstop, at least for the early going. Freshman Pheonix Copley made 59 saves over the course of the weekend, earning WCHA Rookie of the Week for his efforts. While it is still early, and much can change over the coming weeks, Pearson sees a little bit of one of his former goalies in his current starter.
“He’s got such a calm demeanor in the net,” said Pearson. “He can really change the momentum of the game. He reminds of a former goalie I had named Marty Turco. Marty was so calm you’d wonder if he was awake in practice. Pheonix has some of those same qualities.”
What still needs work for the Huskies?
Pearson identified three areas the Huskies need to shore up in order to remain successful.
“I think our power play, even though we didn’t have a lot of opportunities,” said Pearson. “Way too many unforced, or forced, turnovers in critical areas on the ice. The third thing is when we turned the puck over, we didn’t react well.”
Pearson referred to the power play as appearing sluggish at times, turning the puck over in places it shouldn’t have. They did manage to pick up one power play goal on Friday, but that is not going to cut it against top teams for long.
On Saturday night, Pearson mentioned in his post-game interview that he felt the Huskies spent more time reacting than they should have. As of Wednesday afternoon, his staff was working with the players on reacting faster when the puck turned over, which will come in handy against a team that uses the whole rink, like the Pioneers.
The inside scoop: a look at the Pioneers
While the Pioneers no longer boast two of the top forwards in the country in Jason Zucker and Drew Shore, they do boast a pair of Shore brothers again, both of whom will likely be key cogs in their offense. Nick, a junior, netted five points last weekend. Quentin, the freshman, didn’t notch a point, but it won’t likely take long for him to develop his scoring touch.
“They did lose some firepower up front,” said Pearson. “Obviously, it doesn’t seem like it has affected them in the first weekend. They don’t usually make a lot of mistakes. You are going to have to beat them, they are not going to beat themselves.”
Last season, the Pioneers played the majority of the season with just five defensemen on the roster. Sophomore Joey LaLeggia notched 38 points last season, earning WCHA Rookie of the Year honors for his efforts.
This year, he is joined by freshman Nolan Zajac, brother of former North Dakota forwards Travis and Darcy, and son of former Pioneers’ skater Tom. With a goal and three assists, Nolan has started his collegiate career with a bang.
Between the pipes, the Pioneers have arguably the top goalie in the WCHA in Brittain. If that’s not enough, they boast two more who each started 12 games last season due to Brittain’s off- season knee surgery the year before. They are the deepest team in goal in the league, possibly the country.
“I think they’ll have the best goaltending in the league as far as one through three,” said Pearson. “All of them can play.”