HOUGHTON, Mich. — In just their second home contest this season, Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson had one demand of his team — that they come out and make things difficult for the visiting Michigan State defense early and often.
The Huskies did just that and were rewarded with a 3-0 victory at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena Friday night.
“I give our guys a lot of credit,” said Pearson. “They were ready to play tonight. Overall, I thought we were ready to play, had a good start, and were able to put some pressure on their defense.”
Pearson reiterated several times this week that his squad’s 1-6-1 record coming into the game had more to do with the quality of their opponents than of his team’s play. Any doubts to contrary were quickly put to rest as the Huskies swarmed all over the Spartans’ defensive corps and all the hard work paid off almost immediately.
“I thought [the Huskies] played with lots of energy,” said Spartans’ coach Tom Anastos. “They made it difficult for us to penetrate and really establish any kind of forecheck. We didn’t respond to it very well.”
During a shift in which the line of David Johnstone, Ryan Furne and Mike Neville pressed their advantage, Furne picked up the puck along the left boards in the offensive zone. Furne spun and found Johnstone alone in front of Spartans’ goaltender Jake Hildebrand. Johnstone wasted no time finding the back of the net for his second goal of the season at 5:49.
“Your best players need to be your best players most games for you to have a chance to win,” said Pearson. “I thought they were three of the best players [tonight].”
The Huskies kept the pressure on, forcing the Spartans, who were playing in Houghton for the first time since 1984, to adjust their attempts to get the puck out of the zone every shift throughout the opening frame.
While the Spartans (3-4-0 overall) did have the game’s first power play, the Huskies (2-6-1 overall, 1-1-0 WCHA) physically kept them at bay, not allowing pucks to get to Pheonix Copley, who was making his fifth consecutive start in goal.
The second period did not start out much better for the visitors as the Huskies again jumped on the Spartans’ defenders. However, adjustments made by Anastos’ staff began to pay off as the Spartans not only got the puck out, they started to force the issue with the Huskies’ blueline corps.
A turnover by Huskies’ co-captain Brad Stebner three minutes in led to a great scoring chance for the visitors, but Copley was there to stop the wraparound, making one of his 19 saves on the night.
“The guys have been playing well defensively,” said Copley. “That makes my job easier.”
Back-and-forth action highlighted the next several minutes of play until the halfway point when the Huskies’ Blake Hietala and his linemates reestablished the forecheck. Daniel Holmberg picked up the puck in the right corner, skated behind the net and found Hietala out front, but his backhand shot was stopped by Hildebrand.
“They worked really hard and they worked hard down low too,” said Hildebrand. “They battled in the corners and they threw pucks on net and they were getting good bounces.”
Just 30 seconds later, the Spartans pushed up the ice. A misplay at the Huskies’ blueline by Stebner created a three-on-one situation, but his defensive partner, Shane Hanna broke up an attempted pass from Michael Ferrantino.
A pair of late-period penalties for the Spartans gave the Huskies golden opportunities to extend their lead. However, whether it was Blake Pietila, Tanner Kero, or Alex Petan with a point-blank shot, Hildebrand was there to keep things close.
Kero extended the Huskies’ lead just 1:48 into the third period when he took a pass in the high slot from Pietila. After receiving the pass, Kero fired a seemingly innocent shot with no traffic at Hildebrand that beat the netminder between the legs. The goal was Kero’s first of the season.
“I just kind of threw it at the net,” said Kero. “Coach has been saying, ‘Get pucks to the net and good things will happen.’”
Kero and Pietila got loose for a two-on-one chance on their next rush down the ice, but Hildebrand came up big twice to preserve the two-goal lead.
Hildebrand finished the night with 27 saves.
The Huskies extended their lead late in the game when Petan fired a shot from the right boards that eluded Hildebrand at 15:20. Pietila and Kero both assisted on the tally, Petan’s second of the campaign.
With the win, the Huskies broke Spartans’ three-game winning streak. The win was also the first by the Huskies over the Spartans since 2007, when the Huskies skated away with a 4-1 victory at the Great Lakes Invitational.