Despite trying season, Alaska-Anchorage keeping focus on positives

uaaIt hasn’t been the easiest start to a season for Matt Thomas and Alaska-Anchorage.It began this summer when a budget crisis in the state meant a number of programs at the university — including his Seawolves hockey team — were potentially on the chopping block.Maybe it was the lingering spectre of the program potentially being on the chopping block, but the Seawolves subsequently struggled during their early-season tournaments in both Anchorage and Fairbanks — a place where, at least historically, they’ve been strong.The slide continued into the season. After an early 1-0 win over Canisius in Fairbanks’ tournament, the Seawolves lost six straight games. A few, like a 2-1 overtime loss at Bemidji State and a 3-2 overtime loss against Alabama-Huntsville, were close.Some were not.But going into last weekend’s series against a surging Michigan Tech squad, Thomas admitted it was starting to feel overwhelming.”We came real close there in Bemidji, then came home against Alabama and kind of suffered the same fate,” Thomas said. “It was kinda feeling like it was never going to happen.”The Seawolves lost to the Huskies 3-2 on Friday, extending their streak to seven losses. On Saturday, though, the Seawolves finally broke through. Jonah Renouf scored a third-period goal to send the game to overtime. UAA survived the five-on-five overtime to earn their first conference point, then won a shootout 1-0 to earn the extra point.True, it’s not a win — the Seawolves (1-10-1 overall, 0-5-1 WCHA) are still winless in the conference and have just one overall. They’ve also struggled to score — they’re averaging a league-worst 1.25 goals per game, worst in the country.But the tie represents a step forward for Thomas’ crew.”We’d been playing better as a team, so I was happy to see the guys get rewarded for it,” Thomas said. “The results ultimately aren’t there right now , but we feel like we’re a team that’s going to find a way to start winning a lot of these close games that we’re in.”It was good for us to get those points and move into the right direction.”Five of UAA’s games have been decided by one goal (counting the tie against Tech).For the most part, it’s been goaltender Olivier Mantha that has kept them in those games. Mantha, a junior, has a 3.10 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. Not flashy numbers, but Thomas said that’s partly due to those early struggles the team overall had. He gave up 10 goals in the team’s first two games, against Minnesota and Alaska.”Mantha had a rough opening weekend that kinda hurt his numbers right out of the gate. It’s like having a bad GPA your first semester,” Thomas said. “He’s definitely a guy that gives us a chance every night to win; that’s all you can ask in your goaltender. He’s holding up his end of the bargain. It’s up to us to support him. We’re starting to find that rhythm.”This week, the Seawolves head to Bowling Green to take on another surging team, but after that, they return to Alaska and don’t have to travel back to the Lower 48 until January.That should give them some time to heal — last weekend against Tech, Thomas had just nine forwards available. Those injuries, though, have given playing time to a bunch of freshman. Five — Tomi Hiekkavirta, Corey Renwick, Aleksi Ainali, Nolan Nicholas and David Trinkberger — have played at least 10 games.”We’ve got a lot of young players in roles we didn’t envision them playing at the start of the year,” Thomas said. “A lot of that has to do with injuries and some other factors coming in. But guys are getting more ice time than we envisioned at the beginning of the year, so they’re learning quickly. And we’re learning some tough lessons. There’s always something very positive coming out of it.”That gives the Seawolves some hope for the future — both for now and in the long-term. The Alaska Dispatch News reported earlier this month that the Alaska hockey programs — in addition to some other proposed cuts like track and skiing — were spared.”We’re in a positive position moving forward,” Thomas said. “Support for athletics is strong. I think for our program and all the other programs here, there’s a bright future ahead.”

Quick draw

Ferris State freshman center Craig Pefley has turned some heads this season and he’s tied for the WCHA scoring lead with 15 points.The biggest key to his success?Face-offs.Pefley has won 172 face-offs this season, most in the league, and he’s only lost 122. That gives Pefley a .585 face-off percentage, which is third amongst players that have taken at least 100 face-offs.Pefley was named the WCHA Rookie of the Month for October, and hit a bit of a lull in early November before rediscovering his stride the past couple weeks.In his past three games Pefley has four points, three assists, and had the game-winning helper in each game of a sweep against Lake Superior State.So is Pefley the best face-off man in the WCHA? He’s certainly in the discussion with Michigan Tech freshman Alex Smith and Bowling Green junior Brett D’Andrea.

Ice Chips

– Alabama-Huntsville was on the wrong end of a 12-goal burst by Bowling Green. Huntsville has been on a bit of a slide after opening the season with back-to-back wins against Ferris State back in October.- Alaska was idle last week but returns to the ice this weekend to host Michigan Tech. Senior forward Marcus Basara and sophomore forward Chad Staley currently lead the Nanooks in scoring with nine points apiece, as both forwards have tallied four goals and five assists in 12 games.- Through 14 games, Bemidji State senior forward Marinaccio has already established a career season high for points with 13 (6g-7a). He’s already surpassed his 11-point (5g-6a) freshman season.- Mitch McClain had Bowling Green’s first hat trick since the 2013 season when he scored three goals against Alabama-Huntsville. McClain had the first, second, and eighth goal in an 8-3 victory.- After starting strong out of the gate, Lake Superior State dropped its fifth straight game and earned its sixth loss in eight games after being swept on the road at Ferris State. The Lakers head into a weekend series with Michigan at 6-6-0 overall and 4-6-0 in WCHA play.- Michigan Tech is unbeaten in its last five games. They beat and tied Alaska Anchorage last weekend and swept Lake Superior State the week before. Freshman goaltender Angus Redmond had 16 saves Friday and 21 Saturday. He ranks fifth in the country in goals-against average (1.57), seventh in winning percentage (.812), and 13th in save percentage (.925).- Minnesota State junior forward Brad McClure leads the Mavericks in shots on goal with 56 (sixth in the country), also leads the Mavericks in goals with seven (tied for 22nd in the nation). He scored twice in Minnesota State’s 4-1 win over Minnesota last Friday.- Northern Michigan will play Nebraska-Omaha this weekend in just its third non-conference series of the season. It’s also the first non-conference series against a team not named Wisconsin, after the Wildcats played the Badgers four times in the first two months.

Players of the week

This week’s WCHA players of the week are Bemidji State senior forward Brendan Harms (offensive), Minnesota State sophomore goaltender Jason Pawloski (defensive) and Ferris State freshman goaltender Justin Kapelmaster (rookie).