At first glance, a 13-20-4 record, a tenth-place finish, and a first-round loss to North Dakota looks like an extremely disappointing second season for head coach Mel Pearson and the Michigan Tech Huskies. However, upon closer inspection, this group of Huskies built off the success they had last season, and appear to be heading in the right direction.
“Obviously we wanted to win more games,” said assistant coach Bill Muckalt. “You can sit here and give reasons where and why and how we came up short. I like to look at the positives … in the second half we were a much better team.”
The Huskies posted a 9-10-1 record after Dec. 15. They finished the season with a 21.0% power play, which hummed along at 38.5% in the month of February. In fact, it was the best in the entire nation after the Jan. 1.
Goal-scoring was also up for the Huskies, who scored 2.89 goals per game, as opposed to 2.8 last season.
On the not-quite-so positive front, the Huskies were 7-3 in one-goal games last season. This season, they went 4-8. Their record at home this season was 6-8-2, after going 9-6-2 last season. Their road record was similarly off as the Huskies were 7-10-2 last season and only 5-12-2 this season.
One of the reasons the Huskies struggled through the first half of the season was a distinct lack of consistent goaltending from senior Kevin Genoe and freshman Pheonix Copley. Freshman Jamie Phillips got a bit of a free pass in the first half due to his lack of activity (just one start) in the first half, but he played well when called upon down the stretch.
After being a bit spoiled by the efforts of Josh Robinson in his final season in black and gold last year, Genoe proved to be solid on the road, winning twice at Bemidji State and tying twice at Wisconsin, but struggled mightily at home.
Copley posted a victory over then-No. 1 Minnesota in just his first career start, but then struggled to keep pucks out of his net until the Great Lakes Invitational where he shut out Michigan and Western Michigan.
After those wins, Copley’s play was equal parts great (including a shutout of Bemidji State) and average (three-goals against in the third period against Alaska-Anchorage).
“In my opinion, [the goalies] were just inconsistent as a group,” said Muckalt. “It got better towards the end. It was Kevin’s job to have at the start. Pheonix came on and played great against Minnesota and he played outstanding at the GLI. I think for him, it’s just about being consistent.”
Phillips came up with two solid wins in starts against St. Cloud State and Colorado College before struggling in his lone playoff start.
Two seniors, Steven Seigo and Carl Nielsen, led the way for the Huskies from the blueline all season. While Seigo did not have the offensive season he would have liked, his defensive game improved by leaps and bounds. Nielsen learned what it means to be a true leader, both on and off the ice.
“Our seniors did a good job back there,” said assistant coach Damon Whitten. “Carl and Steven did a great job leading our team on the back end and playing hard all year long.”
The Huskies’ early-season struggles defensively amounted to more than goaltending. The loss of junior Daniel Sova to injury Oct. 20 against Minnesota hurt more than originally thought.
The return of Sova helped stabilize the corps. Another factor that helped was the emergence of freshman Walker Hyland. A recruit Whitten found and convinced to come to Michigan Tech, Hyland put up five points in a three-game stretch and anchored the second power play unit, whose success helped the Huskies get back on track.
“[Daniel] had worked hard in the summer on his conditioning and his power skating,” said Muckalt. “[The injury] hurt his year for sure. Walker got in shape as the year went on and he realized how hard he would have to work. He just kept getting better and better.”
Sophomore Riley Sweeney saw his offensive numbers improve, but his defensive game still needs work. Junior Bradley Stebner started strong, faltered a bit in the middle, but came on strong in the end.
“He had a good, strong finish,” said Whitten of Stebner. “Brad was one of our more vocal captains this year, so I look for that role to continue to grow and expand.”
The Huskies opened the season by posting an eight-goal game in their second game of the season. They followed that up with a five-goal effort against Minnesota. After that, they reached the four-goal mark twice over the next 14 games.
Juniors Ryan Furne, Milos Gordic, and Jacob Johnstone all struggled out of the gates while trying to help assimilate talented freshmen like Alex Petan and Jujhar Khaira into the lineup. Pearson put the three juniors together on the same line, and they began to have some success. As they improved, so did the offense.
“Milos down the stretch played great,” said Muckalt. “He did a lot of little things whether it was blocking shots or making checks. It’s funny, then his offense picked up. Jake had a better second half. Furne obviously did as well.”
Sophomores Tanner Kero, David Johnstone, and Blake Pietila all evolved into staples in the Huskies’ top six. Kero and Pietila developed into a dynamic duo that seemed in concert with each other.
“Tanner played really well at North Dakota and did a lot of really good things for us this year,” said Muckalt. “With Blake, I think he is just so strong on the puck. Physically, he’s just a bull in a china shop. He’s got that stubborn mentality.”
Petan proved to be the most dynamic freshman Huskies’ fans have seen in years. Notching a team-leading 34 points in 37 games, Petan skated well no matter who played with him. His 29 points in 28 games led all WCHA freshmen in scoring. He earned a spot on the WCHA All-Rookie team for his efforts.
Khaira, who started the season as a gangly 18-year-old, improved his skating ability throughout the season. A third-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, Khaira learned how to use his size to his advantage in all situations. Finishing the season on a line with Gordic, he learned how to use his strength to run an effective cycle.
Speedy freshman C.J. Eick struggled to score all season before his hard work with Muckalt and Whitten after practice finally paid off as he broke through against Alaska-Anchorage on Feb. 9. His biggest goal came last weekend as he netted the game-winner against North Dakota.
“He found some confidence offensively,” said Muckalt. “You know, he works so hard. Speed gives him opportunities and he’s a dangerous player.”
Seniors Aaron Pietila, Chad Pietila, and Mikael Lickteig all helped the Huskies by filling important roles as the younger forwards leaned on them in practice and games alike.
While Year Two of the Pearson era was not as successful as the first, there is plenty of reason to believe that the Huskies are on the right track. Victories over Minnesota, Michigan, St. Cloud State, and Colorado College all bode well for the future of Michigan Tech.
A new-look WCHA offers the Huskies a fresh chance to improve upon the early returns from Pearson and his staff. However, the path will not be easy. While the WCHA will not include the likes of Wisconsin and Minnesota, newcomers Ferris State and Alaska will give the Huskies all they can handle.
Fortunately, with six of their top seven scorers returning, the Huskies appear to be set up for a push to home playoffs next season.