Playing for pride becomes a remarkable turnaround for Michigan Tech

It had been only 20 minutes but it felt like forever. With his team trailing top-ranked Minnesota-Duluth 4-0 after one period on Friday night in its first-ever visit to Amsoil Arena, Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson entered a deathly quiet Huskies locker room with plenty on his mind.

“They knew they hadn’t played their best hockey and I called a couple of players out for some things they did not do,” said Pearson. “And then we talked a little bit about having some pride, winning the second period and just getting back to playing our game.

“I think they were frustrated, disappointed and embarrassed, quite truthfully.”

Consider Pearson’s message received after Michigan Tech rallied with four unanswered goals to tie UMD 4-4 on Friday and added a handful more the following night in a 5-0 rout of the Bulldogs in what likely will go down as MTU’s signature series of the season.

Well, the regular season at least.

“We made a decision that we didn’t want to play like that the rest of that game and at least play for pride and give ourselves a chance,” said Huskies senior captain Brett Olson. “When we came back out everybody bought into the same idea and we went out and played hard for the next 40 minutes and things worked out.

“We got a little bit of that taste and I think we wanted more and it continued, fortunately, to the next night.”

Olson’s goal and two assists in the series gave the Superior, Wis., native 13 points (7-6–13) in 14 career games against the Bulldogs, leading the team in that category.

UMD won a pair of 5-3 contests when the teams met nearly two months ago in Houghton, Mich.; that came while the Bulldogs were in the middle of a 17-game unbeaten streak that ended in Omaha last month. Despite the near table-turning, Pearson said last weekend’s Bulldogs team wasn’t much different than the team he saw in December.

“I think our team has grown maybe more than their team; I mean they’ve had such a good run,” Pearson said, referring to Minnesota-Duluth’s unbeaten streak. “It’s hard to keep that going weekend after weekend after weekend.

“Maybe we had a little more desperation than they did.”

Unranked Michigan Tech’s record stands at 3-2-2 against teams ranked in the top three at the time it plays them.

To what can that microcosm of success be attributed?

“The fear of getting totally embarrassed, the fear of losing and losing badly, I think, and also having the opportunity to play a top-ranked team excites our kids,” said Pearson.

Michigan Tech’s 12 wins in 2011-12 already gives it more than in all but three of the last 15 seasons, and it’s closing in on the 15 total wins the Huskies earned in the last three seasons combined.

After a blazing 6-2-1 start that included a sweep of Wisconsin and a three-point series against then-No. 2 Denver, the Huskies went a cool 3-9-0 in their next dozen games. Six of those losses were at the hands of such programs as UMD, Minnesota, Northern Michigan, Boston College and Michigan State.

But MTU fell to Minnesota State, Alaska-Anchorage, and St. Lawrence in that span as well and Pearson said moral victories are a thing of the past for his team.

“I learned from [Michigan coach] Red Berenson a long time ago to be a top team you have to learn how to beat the teams you should beat on a regular basis and then take your chances with the top teams,” Pearson said in reference to his longtime mentor. “Once you do that, then you’re going to be an upper-echelon team and we’re still working our way to that.”

The Huskies travel to Mankato to face a Minnesota State team that split with them in November in Houghton. Although the Mavericks are in 11th place in the WCHA, they are 4-3-0 in their last seven games.

With the wave of last weekend’s emotions subsided, is Michigan Tech set up for a letdown?

“The thing about our program is we still have a lot to prove after the recent struggles here,” said Pearson. “So what we’re more focused on every week is getting better and not really looking at who we’re playing or if we’ve had some success [against them].

“It is a concern because we have not had a lot of success here and part of growing as a team is how you handle success when you have some.”

“It’s always in the back of the mind after you come off a successful weekend like that, but the main focus is for the next weekend and what your tasks are at hand,” said Olson. “For myself, and the older guys in the locker room too, it’s just to lead by example and go out and make sure that practices are high paced and high energy and that we’re doing the right things that made us successful before.”

Race for the Cup

With the month of January firmly behind us we have finally reached the final five … weeks of the season, that is. The first of these five remaining weeks to determine WCHA postseason positioning features five conference series with no shortage of playoff implications.

Of the six teams separated by five points from second through seventh in the league standings, only North Dakota is idle this week. So is first-place Minnesota, which has a five-point lead over second-place Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs have five losses overall after a 5-0 loss to Michigan Tech last weekend.

Sort of feels like a Subway commercial, doesn’t it? Let’s take five from the “five” references and move on, shall we?

The race for the MacNaughton Cup is still very much up for grabs, despite what happened last weekend. Michigan Tech went into first-place and No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth’s building Friday, scored nine straight goals and walked away with three points in the standings Saturday. Minnesota grabbed four points and a five-point lead in the WCHA standings with a sweep of St. Cloud State.

Not to discredit a great performance by the Huskies but if you’re UMD, you don’t allow a team not ranked in the top 20 to score nine in a row when you’re ranked No. 1, almost undisputed.

Part of UMD’s recent struggles can be attributed to an inability to score on the power play, which has gone 0-for-21 in the past six games. The Bulldogs are going to Anchorage to face a Seawolves team that had killed off 17 straight penalties in January before allowing its first two power-play goals of the month last week against Denver. UAA’s penalty kill is running at a 92 percent clip (23 for 25) since the break.

But Minnesota-Duluth didn’t lose its ranking from the voters and it’s still atop the PairWise Rankings, thanks in part to Maine sweeping Boston University.

Minnesota has 30 points and the Bulldogs have 25 with five weekends left in the regular season, but don’t crown the Gophers yet.

UMD has two extremely important games in hand with a little bit easier schedule. The Bulldogs go to UAA (2-7-1 home record) then host North Dakota (4-6-0 road), play at Minnesota State (5-8-1 home), host Colorado College (6-5-0 road) and travel to St. Cloud State (6-5-3 home). The total of those records: 23-31-5.

The Gophers finish the season with series at Denver (9-3-2 home), at home against Bemidji State (3-8-1 road), at Nebraska-Omaha (7-3-2 home) and at home against Wisconsin (1-8-1 road). The Gophers have a couple of sweepable series at home but the Pioneers and the Mavericks are going to be tough to beat on the road.

What the Gophers did accomplish with their sweep of SCSU was turning first-place into a two-team race. Denver is seven points back (23) in third place with a tough 10-game stretch to finish the regular season. After this weekend’s home-and-home series with Colorado College (14-9-1), the Pioneers’ schedule looks like this: vs. Minnesota (19-9-1 overall), at Wisconsin (12-12-2), vs. North Dakota (15-10-2) and at Nebraska-Omaha (12-10-4).

The numbers tell us UMD should storm back to take the first seed in the WCHA playoffs, but as we’ve seen this season, nothing is guaranteed in the WCHA.

SCSU’s Christian done

Mick Hatten of the St. Cloud Times reported that St. Cloud State center Jordy Christian’s college career is over.

The senior already had problems with his left knee when he collided with a North Dakota player in front of the SCSU bench on Jan. 21. He got his skate tangled with the UND player and fell awkwardly to the ice. Christian crawled on his hands and knees to the bench and through the door.

He’s getting surgery done on both knees. Christian had two goals and four assists through 24 games.

Travis Novak, a speedy forward who played on the first line and the Huskies’ top penalty-kill unit, went down awkwardly in a collision with Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad last Friday. Novak’s foot was in an orthopedic boot at Saturday’s game but Hatten reported that Novak could be back in the lineup as soon as Feb. 17 against Alaska-Anchorage.

Between the dots …

The last time Michigan Tech scored nine consecutive goals was early in the 2007-08 season when it scored two goals to beat Lake Superior State 4-3, beat Minnesota State 2-0 and scored the first five goals in a 7-1 win over the Mavericks. … Minnesota-Duluth last allowed nine straight goals Feb. 22-March 1, 2008, in 3-0 and 4-0 losses against Colorado College and a 2-0 loss to North Dakota. …

Speaking of North Dakota, Fargo Force (USHL) forward Bryn Chyzyk committed to UND (2012) and UND received a verbal commitment from Vernon Vipers (BCHL) forward Adam Tambellini (2012 or 2013) this week. Chyzyk has 20 goals and 31 points this season while Tambellini, son of Edmonton Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini, has 38 points including 20 goals as well. … A recent Tweet by Wisconsin beat writer Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal reveals the Badgers are on pace to finish the season with fewer than 1,000 shots on goal. Wisconsin’s 655 SOG and 25.19 per game average in 26 games ranks ahead of only Bemidji State. UW’s record low for shots on goal in a season, according to Baggot, is 1,135. …

Saturday’s 5-2 loss to Minnesota State snapped Bemidji State‘s six-game winning streak at Sanford Center. The streak was BSU’s longest at home since an 11-game stretch spanning two seasons from March 7 to Dec. 11, 2009. … The Beavers have drawn just 75 power-play opportunities this season to rank 57th out of 58 Division I men’s teams. Only Dartmouth, with 65 in six fewer games, ranks lower. In conference play, Bemidji State is last with 53 and trails 11th-place St. Cloud State by 17 chances. … With 2-1 and 3-2 victories last weekend over St. Cloud State, Minnesota leads the conference in series sweeps with five. … In holding the Huskies to 25 shots in two games, the Gophers held an opponent to 13 shots or less (twice) for the first time since they held Alaska-Anchorage to 12 on March 11, 2007. …

With six of its last eight games at home, Alaska-Anchorage is looking to snap a seven-game losing streak sooner rather than later. It’s the longest period of futility for the Seawolves since they lost 10 straight in coach Dave Shyiak’s first season guiding UAA. … The battle of Colorado supremacy resumes this weekend with Denver and Colorado College meeting to decide who will be the guardian of the coveted Gold Pan trophy this offseason. DU is in the driver’s seat to retain the trophy for a third consecutive season, needing to earn just two points in this weekend’s home-and-home series to maintain possession. CC, however, has won the trophy in 10 of the 18 seasons for which the Gold Pan has been contended. …

Kudos to Nebraska-Omaha for doing its part to grow the game when it hosts “Kids Hockey Day” on Sunday from 1-4 p.m. at the CenturyLink Center. The event, sponsored by a local bank, will allow kids ages 8 to 12 to participate in six activity stations with current and former UNO players and coaches covering six different aspects of hockey. An autograph session will follow the clinic.

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