Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: The Michigan Tech Turnaround

I know we're barely a month into this college hockey season, and I know that means some teams still have 30 or more regular season games to play. I know that we've danced the "quick start" dance with programs in the past, and I know that it hasn't always ended well.

But I don't care. This can no longer be ignored.

Without a doubt, the biggest and best story of this young college hockey season resides in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where Michigan Tech and Lake Superior State have everyone talking. After Friday night, WCHA fans all over should be looking long and hard at what Michigan Tech is doing.

The Huskies -- long-time doormats of the WCHA and, for the last two-plus years, one of the most insanely cursed programs in recent memory -- blasted Denver 7-2 Friday in Houghton, a win that had DU coach George Gwozdecky proclaiming that the Huskies were "by far the better team," and saying that his team "could have had Patrick Roy in goal for us." The latter comment references the fact that DU lost starting goalie Adam Murray to an injury on Tech's first goal. Juho Olkinoura finished the game, and Gwozdecky said Murray will not play in Saturday's series finale.

(More on that in a bit.)

Even if you allow for the fact that injuries robbed the Huskies of front-line players and depth for two straight years, and now those players are healthy and contributing, you still can't ignore what Mel Pearson is doing in his first year on the job. A team that won four games all of last year has already won five. A team that won two league games all of last year has already won three.

Senior goalie Josh Robinson has an .886 save percentage in his career. He's at .922 this season after stopping 38 of 40 shots against Denver Friday.

The only thing Pearson hasn't done (yet) is win away from Houghton, and it won't happen anytime soon, because the Huskies don't play on the road for two more weeks.

At 5-2 overall and 3-2 in the WCHA, there are no illusions for Pearson and the Huskies. There is a lot of work to be done, and a lot can change between now and when UMD visits Houghton in early December. But for now, it's hard not to smile when thinking about the potential this Michigan Tech team has to do something special.

As I said on the UMD broadcast Friday night, I always enjoy my time in Houghton. When my family is able to travel with me, they enjoy their time in Houghton. We've gotten to know and like many of their fans, and Houghton will always be special because it's where I called my first UMD game in 2005 (national championship game and all, that still stands as the closest I've ever come to throwing up while trying to work ... nerves can do that, I guess).

Time will tell if Pearson can engineer a rapid turnaround. But the early reviews are in, and they're wholly positive.


If it weren't for Michigan Tech's story about 260 miles away, Lake Superior State would probably be grabbing more headlines as we approach Halloween. Friday night, the Lakers took a 4-0 lead and held on to win at Miami 5-3, completing a sweep in the Thursday-Friday series.

The Friday win gives LSSU a 7-1 record on the season, notable for a number of reasons. For starters, Lake State didn't win its seventh game until Jan. 28 last season. So it took the Lakers eight games to win seven this season after needing 26 to hit that mark last season.

So far, Lake Superior State isn't getting a ton of scoring from one guy. Instead, a group of sophomores and juniors have combined to lead the way offensively. Juniors Nick McParland, Zach Trotman, and Domenic Monardo, and sophomore Kyle Jean all have at least seven points in the eight games. Goalie Kevin Kapalka has a .924 save percentage and has started all eight games.

No one thought this Lake Superior State team would make much noise in the CCHA this season, and maybe this 7-1, 5-1 start is a mirage. Maybe Miami's 2-6, 0-4 start is a mirage.

But right now, it makes for a good story, just like their Yooper brethren in Houghton.


UMD fell behind early Friday, as Bemidji State took a 2-0 lead on goals 1:05 apart in the first seven-plus minutes of the first. Scott Sandelin called his timeout after Jordan George gave the Beavers a two-goal lead, and got immediate results. Wade Bergman scored on a scramble play on the first shift after the timeout. J.T. Brown tied the score five minutes later. From there, it was all Bulldogs.

Keegan Flaherty, Chris Casto, Brady Lamb, and Jack Connolly scored as UMD won 6-2 Friday at Amsoil Arena. The Bulldogs saw that Bemidji State's power play was clicking at nearly 30 percent to start the season, so they wisely avoided the cubicle of shame, with Connolly's tripping minor at :59 of the first the only two-minute power play BSU had in the game (no shots).

UMD got back to .500 at 3-3-1, got its first WCHA points, and ran its unbeaten streak to three.

Now, it's time to take another step in this team's development. Saturdays haven't been nearly as good as Fridays for UMD so far this season, a trend that can't last long if UMD is to mold itself into a contending team.

Unquestionably, Bemidji State will be better. Can UMD match that?


Elsewhere in the WCHA, St. Cloud State went to Grand Forks, played without No. 1 goalie Mike Lee, got outshot badly, had two players kicked out of the game for illegal hits, and still shut out North Dakota 4-0.

Lee is not on the trip because of an injury that could be serious. Ryan Faragher filled in nicely in goal, shutting out the Fighting Sioux in his first WCHA start. Travis Novak's short-handed empty-net goal late was the only special teams goal of the night, despite UND having two five-minute power plays and a long five-on-three.

North Dakota has never started 0-4 in the WCHA. They'll make history if they don't solve Faragher in the second game of this series.

Nebraska-Omaha got an Alex Hudson power play goal with 21 seconds left to beat Wisconsin 5-4. It was UNO's first lead after rallying from 3-0 and 4-3 deficits. Also, Minnesota beat Alaska-Anchorage 5-0, and Colorado College rode two Rylan Schwartz goals to a 4-1 win at RPI.

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