Following a dismal series last time out where Nebraska Omaha only took one point of a possible four against visiting Bemidji State, the Mavericks needs to get back to winning ways in a hurry.
That won’t be easy for UNO (12-11-5, 9-7-4 WCHA) this weekend, though, as they travel north to face a Michigan Tech squad experiencing something of a renaissance.
The Huskies (13-13-2, 10-8-2) currently sit in fifth place in the WCHA, one place above UNO. What’s more, MTU, which finished bottom of the WCHA each of the past three seasons, may be on its way to clinching home ice in the first round of the league playoffs for the first time since the 1992-93 campaign.
Here, Anderson gives us his views on the Huskies turnaround this season, conference realignment in college hockey, and how he sees this weekend’s series, part of MTU’s famed Winter Carnival, turning out.
Michigan Tech has been the WCHA’s surprise package this season. What do you attribute MTU’s success to – Is it just a new coach bounce in fortunes or is there more to it than that?
Anderson: The Michigan Tech hockey program needed a clean slate. Former coach Jamie Russell received a lot of blame for the program’s struggles, and, while some was deserved due to a rigid, defense-oriented playing style, injuries were also a big factor that people tend to forget about.
In any case, coach Mel Pearson installed a new more open offensive style that has surprisingly fit the personnel, and more importantly, he instilled a contagious sense of belief and confidence in the locker room.
As expected for players who have been mired in a losing tradition, the team has struggled to handle some of its success, but players have bought into Pearson’s message and are playing with a genuine sense of confidence.
I’ve heard a lot of Tech fans on Twitter this week talking about this weekend’s series tying in with the Winter Carnival. For fans down here who have lived Winter Carnival-less lives up to now, can you tell us what that’s all about?
Anderson: Winter Carnival is an incredible tradition at Tech that’s been going on since the 1920s, with this year’s theme being “From All Over the State, What Makes Michigan Great.”
Snow statues the size of small buildings are strewn throughout campus as part of a month-long statue building competition matching the theme, and Wednesday night is the famous all-nighter in which students construct smaller statues throughout the night (and admittedly party pretty hard in light of Thursday and Friday with no classes).
Houghton is a small town, but this weekend it will buzzing with alumni, students’ families and tourists. The hockey games are a featured part of the festivities, and they will likely draw the biggest crowds of the year.
What sort of shape are the Huskies in heading into the home stretch of the regular season?
Anderson: The long grind of a difficult WCHA schedule has taken its toll on the Huskies, as with all teams, and the coaching staff has lessened the practice and weightlifting load on the team.
That said, the Huskies are mostly healthy and have more than enough depth (31 rostered players) to rest and rotate players if needed. As far as the team’s confidence level at this point in the season, it’s very high.
The Huskies have not hosted a playoff series since 1993, and have finished dead last in the WCHA for three straight seasons, so to even be in a race for home ice is a huge accomplishment.
We’ve asked all of our interviewees this season this question, so we’ll ask you, as well: What are your thoughts on the NCHC and conference realignment in college hockey? What is the general feeling on that subject among Tech fans?
Anderson: I think the WCHA would have been just fine as it was even with the Big Ten teams departing, and the NCHC schools’ reasons for forming a new conference were poor at best. However, after the initial panic of the situation among the “leftovers,” it looks like most teams have found or will find a satisfactory home for 2013-14 and beyond.
Tech fans were admittedly scared at first, but I think everyone up here now feels like it was a blessing in disguise. Tech’s recent struggles make it easy to forget the influential role the Huskies have had in the WCHA’s history, and with this year’s success and the way the 2013-14 WCHA is shaping up, Tech is excited about its potential leadership role in the conference once again — both on and off the ice.
Being centrally located and renewing rivalries with the two other Upper Peninsula teams (Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State) are nice bonuses.
Which Huskies should UNO’s players, coaches and fans keep an eye out for this weekend?
Anderson: If I knew, I’d tell you. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t want to predict who might score for Tech this weekend.
The Huskies have eight players with seven or more goals this season. If I had to highlight a few, seniors Brett Olson and Jordan Baker have led the way, leading the team with 27 and 24 points, respectively.
Olson, Tech’s captain, has been particularly consistent. Omaha fans should be nervous if David Johnstone touches the puck on the power play — seven of his goals have come on the man advantage, including three in the last four games.
Senior Josh Robinson has started 24 of 27 games in net for Tech this season, and he’s played a major role in Tech’s success this season, thanks to a .911 save percentage.
Finally, what are your predictions for this weekend’s series?
Anderson: This is arguably one of the biggest series in Tech’s recent history, combining the playoff race and Winter Carnival festivities.
The Huskies’ biggest struggles this season have come against opponents they should beat in series with little hype. Since this weekend doesn’t fit that recipe, Tech should come out strong.
The first periods of the last two Friday games have been awful (outscored 7-1), whereas Saturday first periods have been stellar (outscored opponents 10-2).
I expect that will finally even itself out and both nights should be close games. I’ll go the safe route and call a split, with Tech’s win actually coming on Friday night, 5-3, and Nebraska Omaha earning a split with a narrow 4-3 win Saturday.
Many thanks go out to Anderson for taking time to speak with us this week. For more from him, we highly recommend that you follow him on Twitter at @steander.