HOUGHTON - After opening the season winless with a trip to No. 20 Minnesota-Duluth, the Michigan Tech hockey team is testing its mettle even more severely this weekend with a non-conference series against No. 4 Notre Dame in South Bend.
Add a pair of games at No. 5 Michigan and hosting Michigan State in early November, plus the Great Lakes Invitational Tournament in late December and the Huskies will face one of the toughest non-conference schedules possible this season.
So what gives?
Michigan Tech’s Mike Neville collides with a Laurentian player along the boards during their exhibition earlier this month at MacInnes Student Ice Arena. Tech plays at Notre Dame this weekend. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
While coach Mel Pearson admitted the schedule was mostly set when he arrived three years ago, he did personally add the trip against the Fighting Irish, beefing the slate up from tough to well-done-two-dollar steak.
"It is not normally this tough, no. But I want to play the best schedule possible," Pearson said. "Some people might say 'you are crazy' because you want more wins at the end of the year. But if we do well and win in our league we will be fine. I think this is the best way to get ready for that. It will expose our weaknesses and what we need to work on, but at the same time it will show us what championship caliber hockey is like and how to play against it."
So question No. 2: Do the win-loss results actually matter then in non-conference play?
Or is it more of a goal to prepare the team for WCHA play, where just one team (No. 18 Minnesota State) currently resides among the top 20 in the nation?
"The results certainly do matter as they are the only way to boost your Pairwise ranking (used for the NCAA Tournament). That being said, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. We are just trying to get home ice in the playoffs right now, so Pairwise is a long way off," Pearson said with a smile.
After struggling to crack Duluth netminder Matt McNeely (40 saves in 42 chances), the Huskies will face just as stern of a test in Irish goaltender Steven Summerhays.
The senior opened his season with a pair of shutout wins, knocking Western Michigan out of the top-20 slot it held in the preseason.
While injuries and suspensions certainly contributed to the goal-scoring malaise - returning top scorers David Johnstone will miss time with an injured wrist and Blake Pietila sat with a suspension for a game disqualification on a major-cross check after Friday's game - Pearson highlights the 0-for-11 Tech put up on the power play as the statistic most concerning from the past weekend.
The Huskies lost their special teams "quarterback" from the blueline in Steven Seigo, and sophomore defenseman Walker Hyland has not picked that role up as quickly as Pearson hoped.
"That was a point of emphasis this week, yes," Pearson said. "With so many guys returning to the (power play) from last season, we didn't spend as much time on it in the preseason, which to be fair is pretty short. But this week we spent more time trying to find that edge again.
"You have to capitalize on your opportunities on the road, and the power play is a big one."