HOUGHTON - The situation could not be more different from last year for Michigan Tech entering its road series against Bemidji State. The Huskies hope that's true of the results, too, in this weekend's Western Collediate Hockey Association road matchup against the Beavers.
Tech was 4-0 and ranked No. 15 in the country last October, until BSU provided a reality check by sweeping the Huskies. Now Tech (2-6-0, 1-5-0 WCHA) heads to Bemidji, Minn., grinding through a five-game losing streak, and the Beavers (2-3-1, 1-2-1 WCHA) will certainly provide a gut check.
"It's completely different circumstances, but we're all desperate for a win," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "We're desperate, they're desperate, so it's going to be a heck of a weekend."
The Beavers were swept last weekend at Colorado College by 3-2 and 6-3 scores, but they've proved their potential by taking three of four points from Nebraska-Omaha two weeks before that - in Omaha. That would be the same Mavericks who swept Tech two weeks ago. Tech and BSU have both split with Lake Superior State this year.
"I don't think you can tell a lot by common opponents other than games are all very close," said Pearson, who thought Omaha outplayed BSU much of the weekend, only to run into a hot Beaver goaltender in Andrew Walsh (2-3-1, 2.32 goals against average, .924 save percentage this year). "You have to play every night and it usually comes down to a break or a bounce."
While the Huskies have been on the wrong end of their fair share of breaks and bounces, they also know they've allowed a few soft goals, broken down defensively at key moments and failed to convert enough scoring opportunities. Those are all areas the team addressed, in addition to maintaining effort and boosting morale, during an "off" week that only included two days away from the ice.
"After the (Omaha) series we were down on ourselves," said captain and senior defenseman Carl Nielsen. "We know we can play better than that and it's not the outcome we wanted. The week off gave us a chance to work on the little things we need to work on and refocus, reenergize, take a deep breath.
"It's nice that we have a game this weekend and another weekend off, so it's easy to just focus on these two games and get the job done."
Nielsen's role as captain may be more critical than ever in keeping the relatively young Huskies on the right path through the early-season adversity.
"I have the role of trying to keep everyone together, keep everyone as a team, not fall apart at the seems and point fingers at forwards not putting pucks in the net, defense not keeping pucks out, goalies not playing the way they should. We need to win and lose as a team."
Goaltending was strong for the Huskies in their season opener against No. 1 Minnesota, but freshman Pheonix Copley has battled through freshman-like inconsistency. He will not make the trip to Bemidji. Senior Kevin Genoe stopped 41 of the 43 shots he faced in four periods of action against UNO, and he is Tech's tentative starter tonight.
Freshman Jamie Phillips is also making the trip, and Pearson said he'll get an opportunity soon.
Defensively Tech will just need to focus on staying sound against Bemidji State's senior-laden lineup, which is led by forward Jordan
George. George has played in 96 consecutive games for the Beavers, tallying 50 goals - the only current NCAA Division I hockey player to reach that plateau - and 55 assists. He has eight career game-winning goals, including one in February 2011 in BSU's 1-0 win over Tech. He also has five points in four career games against Tech. The Beavers' senior class as a whole has 22 points, compared to just five, six and seven from the juniors, sophomores and freshmen, respectively.
"They have a good senior class, that leadership and depth," Pearson said. "We're going to have to earn everything against them. They're just a scrappy, hard-working team. They're a lot like us, they probably think they could have won some games. They've been in every game pretty much."
BSU coach Tom Serratore noted his teams' offensive depth in a press conference earlier this week, but forward depth is also one of Tech's strengths. The Huskies simply need to convert more on their opportunities.
"(Assistant) coach Bill Muckalt always says you can't score if you don't hit the net, so we can't be blowing pucks over the net," said
Tech sophomore forward Blake Pietila, whose seven points, five goals and 25 shots leads the team. "We have to bear down on our scoring chances. We're going to stay positive and try to string a couple wins together."
While Tech does not have nearly as much experience up front as BSU, the Huskies know they need to get more production out of the few upperclassmen they do have, such as juniors Ryan Furne and Jake Johnstone, who are off to slow starts for the second straight year.
"We don't have a lot of seniors, so we need those juniors - the Furnes, the (Milos) Gordics, the Jake Johnstones - to take a step forward for us to have success," Pearson said.
In addition to the five-game losing streak Tech is currently on, the Huskies could exorcise a few other demons during this series, including an 0-4 all-time record at Bemidji State and a six-game winless streak against the Beavers (2-5-1 all-time series). Tonight's faceoff from Sanford Center is slated for 8:37 p.m. (ET), while Saturday's faceoff is 8:07 p.m.