With only one win separating them in their overall records and just one point separating them in the WCHA standings, No. 17 Michigan Tech hosts No. 16 Bowling Green in a key matchup that could help determine who will have home ice in the playoffs.
Playing games with meaning is nothing new to the Huskies and Falcons, whose rivalry has grown since the Falcons joined the WCHA before the start of the 2013-14 season.
The two combatants met on Saturday, March 18, 2017, at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena in the first year the WCHA held every playoff game on a campus site. In front of 4,466 fans, the Huskies won in double overtime on a goal by Shane Hanna.
Since then, every game, whether in the regular season or the playoffs, has been that much more interesting.
What makes the rivalry special is that both teams have similar recruiting strategies in that they look for players who fit their school and their team’s personality well.
“I think that the number one thing that I that I’ve learned is that it has to be about people,” said Falcons coach Ty Eigner. “When we recruited for the past nine years and tried to bring people into our program, we tried to find the right kind of people. From a hockey perspective, we understand what our identity is.”
Huskies coach Joe Shawhan agrees, and that has helped create the blossoming rivalry.
The two teams split a series earlier this season with the Falcons winning Friday, Oct. 25, 3-1, and the Huskies taking the Saturday night game 4-2.
Since that win, the Huskies have gone 10-5-1 with three of those losses coming to No. 1 North Dakota and No. 3 Minnesota State.
Shawhan feels his team is not necessarily playing better, but they are starting to get some bounces to fall their way.
For Shawhan’s Huskies, sophomores Trenton Bliss, Tommy Parrotino and Eric Gotz have all stepped up their games offensively, especially since the 2-1 loss to the Mavericks on Nov. 9.
Bliss has seven goals and 12 points in his last 14 games, and is tied for the team lead in points with classmate Alec Broetzman.
Bliss’ maturity with the puck has rapidly been equalled by his maturity without it. Shawhan credits his leadership as a big part of why freshman center Logan Pietila has gotten hot lately, scoring four goals in his last three games.
“I think that line’s mature,” said Shawhan. “They talk a lot and I do notice Trent mentoring Logan, so I know that’s happening and I think that’s very important. That’s good culture when when guys are teaching the other guys because anything, regardless of what people think, that comes from your leaders means more than coming from your coaches.”
The Huskies’ duo are skating alongside Parrottino, who scored a hat trick in the win over the Falcons earlier this season, and has made key plays in wins over then-No. 18 Michigan State and then-No. 17 Arizona State. He had a short-handed goal against the Spartans and created the turnover that led to Pietila’s game-winning goal against the Sun Devils on Saturday.
Having shown flashes of his offensive ability through the first year and a half, Parrottino is starting to show consistency for the Huskies over the last four games.
“He’s now putting together consistent efforts, which is extremely important for us,” Shawhan said. “Where it was before, you would get a good game once in awhile. You didn’t know when. It might not even be a whole game. It might be just a couple of shifts here and there. He’s putting together games now and his role is increasing, power play time, penalty kill time, everything because he certainly has the talent in the abilities of a wonderful young man.”
Gotz, who was honored by the WCHA as Defenseman of the Month for December, has been on a tear offensively while the Huskies have been winning. Since Nov. 15, he has three goals and 13 points, which has helped him move up to third on the team in scoring with four goals and 15 points through 23 games.
Shawhan loves the way his second-year defender is playing the game with confidence.
“I’m extremely proud of him,” Shawhan said. “What he’s doing is he’s playing extremely well in big situations. That’s the invaluable part. You know, every game, what you’re getting out of him.”
All three players — Bliss, Parrottino and Gotz — are among the types of players Shawhan and his staff have worked very hard to recruit since he took over as head coach from Mel Pearson, who left for Michigan.
“There’s no arrogance about these guys, which is refreshing,” said Shawhan. “It’s really refreshing.
“It’s not about them. They want to they want to find their place and then they’re gradually excelling within their place.”
While things are looking up for the Huskies of late, the Falcons stumbled last week, dropping three games around the New Years holiday, losing to Miami before falling twice at home over the weekend to Northern Michigan.
Eigner believes that it was just that, a bad stretch.
“Last week wasn’t a great week for us,” he said. “It was a unique week in that we played Monday against Miami and then you’ve got the New Year’s holiday in there and then you turn around and you play right away on Friday and Saturday. So from a results perspective, it was it wasn’t a good week for us. At the end of the day, that’s exactly what it was, one week.”
While there was no one thing the Falcons could point to as the main issue for their recent struggles, Eigner feels that his team is already addressing the issues that have cropped up in practice, and they look to bounce back Friday.
Just as the Huskies have a group of sophomores who are stepping up, the Falcons have one of their own in Alex Barber. Currently tied for second on the team in scoring with six goals and 20 points, it is the other things Barber does that really matter to his first-year coach.
“He sent a real nice job,” Eigner said. “He’s found himself a spot on one of the power play units and is killing penalties for us, and then obviously plays a bunch of 5-on-5 minutes. Alex is probably the kid that, you know, if you look at from a from a statistical standpoint, and then impact on the game night in and night out, is the one player that has really taken a big jump from from last year to this year.”
No matter who wins this weekend, the chances are good that both games will be hard fought by two very similar opponents.
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