While the early portion of their season has been filled with tremendous highs and lows, the Michigan Tech Huskies head into their Thanksgiving break with plenty to be thankful for in what has already happened, and reason to be optimistic that things will continue to improve.
Coming off a break last weekend, the Huskies went into Bemidji State, a place where they had never won, and faced a Beavers team that was coming off a strong showing against the Colorado College Tigers. The Huskies took both games in overtime, battling back from a three-goal deficit Friday night.
“While it wasn’t our best weekend, we did a lot of things better,” said Huskies’ head coach Mel Pearson. “We got some timely goals…and we had more consistent goaltending.”
More impressively, when the dust settled from the weekend the Huskies found themselves led offensively by five underclassmen: freshmen Jujhar Khaira and Alex Petan, and sophomores Blake Pietila, Tanner Kero and David Johnstone.
Friday night’s game changed in the closing seconds of the second period with a huge goal from offensive catalyst Blake Pietila. The sophomore winger scored with just 20 seconds remaining in the period, pulling the Huskies within two.
Khaira, a center, became the story of the third period with his pair of power play goals. Khaira also added an assist on Petan’s game-winner. The third round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers appears to be delivering on his potential after finishing the weekend with four points, giving him eight in his first 10 games.
“He’s really using his strength, his body,” said Pearson. “He’s more confident, he’s excited, and he’s got some swagger to his game. You don’t get many Grade A chances so you have to go to those dirty areas, and he’s doing that now, as you saw on the game-winner Friday night.”
After Saturday night’s 2–1 victory, Petan found himself at the top of the Huskies’ scoring chart with four goals and 10 points in 10 games. He’s now tied for fifth in WCHA scoring with nine points in eight league games.
A third key to the Huskies’ attack emerged this weekend in Johnstone. Coming into the weekend, he had just one goal and three points in eight games. He notched three assists Friday night and added two more on Saturday as the puck seemed to find him everywhere he went.
“I think scoring the previous weekend lifted a huge burden off of David,” said Pearson. “He’s starting to play with some urgency. He is becoming the player we need him to be.”
Despite surrendering five goals over the course of the weekend, senior goaltender Kevin Genoe made a strong statement in his bid to become the rock the Huskies can lean on defensively. While he did not make every stop, he came up big when needed, allowing the Huskies to get stronger as Friday night wore on.
“He had to make some big saves [Friday night] to allow us to claw our way back in,” said Pearson. “He looked more comfortable Saturday. He competed for rebounds and he stood tall for us.”
Genoe’s efforts rank him among the top WCHA goaltenders at this point. His 2.07 goals against average is good for third in the league, while his .931 save percentage is good for second.
Another veteran had a big weekend for the Huskies. Assistant captain Steven Seigo, a senior, notched goals in both contests. His offensive output was something the Huskies have needed since the season-opening Lake Superior State series.
All this success hasn’t masked some areas in which Pearson and his staff would like to see improvement. The coaches are looking for more from the junior class, specifically wingers Milos Gordic and Ryan Furne.
“Milos is fighting things right now,” said Pearson. “He is not the best skater, but he needs to push the pace. He needs to use his body to force the play.”
Defensively, the Huskies still have a lot of room for improvement. Seigo’s offense helps, but Pearson is still looking for more from sophomores Justin Fillion and Jimmy Davis. Freshman Walker Hyland had his first opportunity Saturday night, and Pearson felt he did a commendable job under the circumstances.
The other area the Huskies will continue to work on in game situations is turnovers. While not something you can simulate easily in practice, the Huskies are improving, despite their struggles at times Friday night.
A 4–6 start may not be what Huskies’ fans and players expected to start the season, but if one digs a little deeper, it would appear that the Huskies are moving in the right direction. It is unfortunate that they won’t have the opportunity this weekend to build on what they did well against Bemidji State, but they have had the chance to work on some of the weaker areas of their game in practice.