HOUGHTON - In front of the home fans for the first time in more than a month, Michigan Tech enters this weekend's Western Collegiate Hockey Association series with Bemidji State knowing the time for mulligans has passed, both on the ice and in the league standings.
"The clock's ticking. It's been ticking since day one, but now that it's the second half, there's got to be a sense of urgency, of desperation. If we really want to do this, it's either now or never. We still have a chance to do some great things this year and it all starts this weekend," senior captain Carl Nielsen said.
Tech (6-12-3, 3-10-3 WCHA) has not notched a league win since the last time these teams met, in Minnesota in November, when the Huskies won back-to-back overtime games. Part of the reason why is a persistent inability to overcome early deficits. Tech is 0-11-3 this season when failing to score first, something it didn't do in either game of a zero-point weekend at Minnesota Duluth.
After giving up several grade-A scoring chances early Saturday, head coach Mel Pearson called timeout just 2:45 in to kickstart the Huskies. UMD still led 2-0 after a period and though the Huskies closed to within a goal three times, they never found an equalizer.
"I think we thought we were ready, as coaches we thought we were ready, but they were the team that was more ready and they jumped us. We were just a step slow," Pearson said.
The result was particularly disappointing given how well the Huskies played two weeks previous in the Great Lakes Invitational. Finding the mojo Tech displayed while hosting the GLI will be vital to having success while hosting BSU this weekend at MacInnes Student Ice Arena.
"We just did not seem to play with the same energy, the same urgency. I guess those were the two biggest words that I can use," Pearson said.
Tech has only two home wins in nine games this season and just a tie from its last seven games in Houghton.
Bemidji presents an opportunity for Tech to turn its MacInnes record around, starting with tonight's 7:07 p.m. faceoff. The Beavers (5-11-4, 4-7-3 WCHA) are just a single spot ahead of Tech at 10th in the league. Idle last weekend, they have just one road win (Dec. 8 at UMD) in eight tries over the last two months.
Jordan George, a 5-foot-8 senior, had the series-winning goal of Winter Carnival 2011, scored twice when the teams met earlier this year and is one of a limited number of offensive threats for a BSU team with a reputation for defensively oriented play and without a player in the league's top 30 in points.
"We just can't throw it out front and hope, because it's going to be out of the zone in a hurry," Pearson said.
"You have to force them to play in their zone and you have to cycle and use the back of the net and force them to have to play a lot of defense in their zone, and eventually they'll break down. They'll take penalties. We did some of that in Bemidji, they took some penalties, we scored on the power play and ended up winning the Friday night game."
Where George and BSU are most dangerous is on the power play, where they're second-best in the WCHA with a 23.8 percent (10-of-42) conversion rate.
A bright spot Saturday was junior forward Ryan Furne, who had two points, including his first goal since Oct. 20.
Pearson plans on playing Furne alongside fellow struggling juniors Jacob Johnstone and Milos Gordic in hopes of igniting the whole group.
"Jake has some speed, Milos can control the puck, so if we can get to the small areas and work teams like Bemidji down low, I think we can make some stuff happen," Furne said.
One player who didn't have a great weekend in Duluth was Blake Pietila. Pearson was quick to admit Pietila didn't play UMD like the same guy who led Tech in goals before a gold-medal winning trip to the World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
"You just don't get that mental break you need, because the tournament is so intense, and the travel and the food and the time change and everything, it takes a while to get back. He was just OK. Having said that, I'd take Blake at 50 percent over a lot of guys at 100 percent, but he had an off week," Pearson said.
Pietila will join Tanner Kero and Alex Petan on a forward line. Juhjar Khaira, who has played alongside roommate Petan for much of the season, will be with David Johnstone and Malcolm Gould, while C.J. Eick and Dennis Rix will join possibly Aaron or Chad Pietila in a checking line role.
Defensively, Dan Sova, who played Saturday for the first time since October, will probably see some time alongside Justin Fillion or Walker Hyland, while the usual pairings of Nielsen with Brad Stebner and Steven Seigo-Riley Sweeney will remain the same.
Pearson said Pheonix Copley will likely start in goal tonight, giving him positive marks for his 41-save performance Friday, but a much lower grade Saturday after giving up five goals on 35 shots.
Pearson was careful to note that though urgency is important, neither panic nor defeatism has set in inside the Huskies' locker room.
"There's still a lot of hockey left, and there's still a lot of belief we can do some things this year," he said.