This Week in WCHA Hockey: Michigan Tech falls victim to time off as teams adjust to pandemic rules

Michigan Tech’s Justin Misiak gains possession of the puck Monday afternoon against Minnesota State (photo: Michigan Tech Athletics).

As Michigan Tech and No. 6 Minnesota State took the ice Sunday, neither team had played a game in at least two weeks, which appears to be part of a new normal during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Mavericks lost the chance to play the second game of their season-opening series with Bemidji State due to a positive COVID-19 test, leading to the team having to quarantine for three weeks.

The Huskies suffered a similar fate after their opponent last weekend, Northern Michigan, also had its first three series of the season shut down due to a positive test.

Both teams looked out of sorts for much of Sunday’s contest, which might seem a bit out of the ordinary, as by this point in the season, typically coaches have a pretty good idea of what type of team they have. However, when the dust settled after Monday night’s game, both teams came away with a win.

Huskies assistant coach Chris Brooks felt that his team had the better of the situation in the first half of the Sunday night game. Given that his team had been able to practice throughout their break, unlike the Mavericks, Brooks said his team did have some strong moments. However, he pointed out some of the issues the Huskies have been running into just preparing for whatever comes next.

“There’s really no excuses,” said Brooks after Sunday’s 3-1 win. “This is just a different time right now. The thing about hockey players is that they are creatures of habit. It has been very, very difficult for us to get into a routine because you just sort of take things day by day.

“These are just situations where you have to turn negatives into positives; try and help the guys grow.”

The Huskies seemed to grow quickly as they took advantage of a pair of miscues by the Mavericks in the game’s first 26:32, scoring twice. Both goals were the direct result of turnovers by Minnesota State skaters.

The first was the result of Huskies forward Carson Bantle chasing down Mavericks defenseman Andy Carroll, forcing him to throw the puck from the right corner of the defensive zone right out in front of goaltender Dryden McKay. The second goal, which came in the middle frame, came off a similar play as Huskies forward Logan Pietila pressured Mavericks forward Jake Jaremko and forced him to throw a clearing pass right up the middle of the rink. Huskies defenseman Tyler Rockwell knocked the puck down and quickly moved it over to his partner, Eric Gotz, who blasted a one-timer over McKay’s right shoulder.

From that point forward, the Mavericks seemed to get their collective feet underneath them. They peppered Huskies goaltender Blake Pietila with shots, totalling 35 over the game’s final 40 minutes. However, they could only find the back of the net once, with just 1:16 remaining in regulation.

Pietila, who was making his first start of the season, made save after save, 43 in total, keeping the Huskies in control of the game despite the shot disparity. While the Mavericks seemed to get visibly frustrated by how surprising the second-year goaltender’s efforts were, the Huskies’ coaching staff was not, given that Pietila puts the same level of effort into his practices as he does his games.

“(Pietila) has been excellent in practice,” said Brooks. “He competes very hard every day. His attention to detail (is impressive). He always has his foot on the gas pedal. It separates him a little bit on his work ethic, just his compete and battle on pucks. He plays every drill to the end.”

For Pietila, who last saw action two weeks ago after relieving Mark Sinclair in the Huskies’ 4-1 loss to Lake Superior State, the chance to start and finish a game, earning his first career win in the process, was well worth it, despite the lack of a home crowd to cheer on his numerous key saves.

“It would be nice to have the fans there and show their support,” said Pietila. “It was still just as great a feeling to make the save for my teammates. You could hear them on the bench, so it was great.”

Pietila was nearly as good Monday, making another 35 saves, including 31 over the first two periods, in a 2-0 loss. The Huskies coaching staff felt like he gave them a chance to even things in the third period, where the Huskies outshot the Mavericks 10-4.

“We knew that was going to happen,” said MTU assistant coach Dallas Steward after the loss. “We have to embrace that. You have to enjoy that and you have to work for that. Those are the types of situations where you build character personally and as a team.”

While the Mavericks had long stretches Monday that looked more like the game they are capable of playing, the Huskies struggled to find the type of consistency necessary to be competitive week in and week out.

“I think we had moments of good, but there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Steward.

Despite the mistakes made by both teams over the course of the series, the two teams each came away with a win. Given how complicated 2020-21 has already been for the WCHA, the result feels like a weekend where both teams grew despite the challenges.

Calder continues hot start

Lake Superior State forward Ashton Calder exploded on the scene last season, scoring 12 goals, up from seven as a freshman. With another tally Sunday, he already has four this season.

The hometown product already has two game-winning goals and has racked up six points on the young season.

His goal on Sunday opened the scoring for the Lakers. They added one more from Brandon Puricelli before the end of the opening frame. From there, the Lakers added one more in the third to earn a 3-2 victory over Alabama Huntsville.

Getting rubber to the net

Bowling Green struggled to find the net over the weekend against Mercyhurst, settling for four goals in a split with the Lakers.

However, the Falcons did pepper Lakers goaltender Hank Johnson with 90 shots over the two games.

Defenseman Tim Theocharidis led the way for the Falcons in Sunday’s 3-1 win. He scored with less than four minutes remaining in the first period before adding a second tally 12:47 into the second.

Theocharidis has three goals on the season, all of which have come in the last three games.