Michigan Tech Using Time Off Wisely
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
The Michigan Tech Huskies turned some heads when they reached the WCHA Final Five last season, and they turned some more when they upset Minnesota back on Oct. 19. But then they lost their next five games, culminating in a sweep at the hands of Nebraska-Omaha, and many of those heads went back to looking the other way.
The Huskies, meanwhile, had two weeks to look at themselves and figure out what they needed to do to get back to winning.
Two overtime wins at Bemidji State followed, and though it wasn't perfect, it was progress.
Any improvements the Huskies made certainly didn't show up right away on Friday, as they found themselves trailing the Beavers 4-1 late in the second period. But then Blake Pietila scored in the final minute of the period, Jujhar Khaira scored twice in the third, and Alex Petan scored 2:12 into overtime to give the Huskies the 5-4 win.
Coach Mel Pearson juggled his lines during the week off in an effort to jumpstart an offense that scored just nine goals during the team's five-game losing streak. Pietila, Khaira and Petan became the new top line, and the trio clicked right away. In addition to the four goals they scored on Friday, Khaira and Petan set up Pietila for Saturday's overtime winner as well.
Pietila, a sophomore who had 24 points last year, and Petan, a 20-year-old freshman who was a top-10 scorer in the British Columbia Hockey League last year, were both playing well even before being put together. But the move really seemed to spark Khaira, an 18-year-old rookie who was a third-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers over the summer. Khaira had no goals and four assists in his first eight games, but doubled his point total with two goals and two assists against Bemidji.
"I think the older guys are a little bit more mature and a little stronger usually, and I think that's why Alex got off to a better start statistically than Jujhar did," Pearson said. "I was telling my coaches before the Bemidji games that even though Jujhar hadn't scored yet, I thought he had really improved from the opening weekend. I give him a lot of credit because even though he hadn't scored, he wasn't letting it affect the other parts of his game."
Another key forward who doubled his point total was David Johnstone, who registered four assists on the weekend. Johnstone, who had 29 points as a freshman last year, was the team's leading returning scorer, but he appeared to suffer the infamous sophomore slump to open this season.
"A lot of times when you come off a really good year, you think it's gonna automatically happen that you'll have a better year," Pearson said. "As we know, that's not how it works. I think (Johnstone) was too cute at the start of the year and tried to play too much like a finesse player instead of doing all the little things. Then as the games went on, he started pressing and tried to do way too much. Once he realized that he had to get back to the basics and do all the little things first, that's when he started to turn the corner. I thought he was maybe our best player this past weekend even thought he didn't have the numbers that Jujhar or Alex did."
While underclassmen have risen to the challenge up front, it's a senior who has provided the Huskies with the goaltending they so desperately needed. They entered the season with Kevin Genoe, whose career save percentage was .893, battling two freshmen for the starting job vacated by Josh Robinson.
Rookie Pheonix Copley won the job out of the gates, but he couldn't hang onto it, and ultimately ceded to Genoe after getting pulled in the second game of the Nebraska-Omaha series. Genoe stopped 41 of 43 shots against Omaha, then 53 of 58 against Bemidji. He is now 3-1-0 with a .913 save percentage on the season, and Pearson said he will stick with Genoe as his number one goalie for the time being.
"Even though he gave up four goals on Friday night, I thought he made some big saves when we were down 4-1 to give us a chance to claw our way back," Pearson said. "That's what you're looking for in a goaltender, someone who at least gives you a chance to work your way back in a game. Then he came back the second night, and I thought he was real strong. If you only give up one goal on the road, you're going to win a lot of hockey games."
The Huskies knew they had question marks on offense and in goal, but they expected defense to be a strength. They surrendered fewer than three goals per game last season, and they returned six defensemen who saw regular playing time last year. So far, though, the defense has been anything but. They rank last in the WCHA with 3.60 goals allowed per game, and they had allowed 17 goals in their last four games before the Bemidji series.
Obviously some inconsistent goaltending contributed to those struggles, but Pearson said the guys in front of the net were just as much to blame. It also isn't a coincidence that the defense struggled the most when Dan Sova went down with a wrist injury that will keep him out until mid-December.
The rest of the defensive corps failed to step up against Denver and Omaha, and it appeared the Bemidji series was going to be more of the same. But after allowing four goals in the first two periods, the Huskies held the Beavers to just one the rest of the weekend.
"As we went through those struggles, we had too many giveaways and unforced turnovers," Pearson said. "I think that was really uncharacteristic of our defense. It's hard to duplicate that or work on it in practice, but we talked about it a lot and were able to watch a lot of film and really talk about how we can manage the puck better as a defensive corps. I thought that was one of the keys coming out of the bye week and going into Bemidji."
The Huskies were able to make good use of their last bye week. They had another this past week, and are now ready to host Minnesota-Duluth on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. If they can continue to improve, they just might start turning some heads again.