By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
Well, here they go again. Or, should we say- here they come again.
Still buzzing from last year's late-season push to the WCHA playoff championship and a NCAA tournament appearance, the Michigan Tech Huskies are once again making waves in the conference. Fresh off a win and tie against Bemidji State this past weekend, Tech is now 7-0-1-1 in the WCHA; good enough for first place in the conference standings, two points ahead of nationally third-ranked Minnesota State. By the way, the Huskies are also ranked, now #20 in the national polls.
Like last season's amazing run through the WCHA tournament and, ultimately, their second-straight championship trophy, Tech is moving through their opponents this season thanks to an impressive dose of talent throughout the line-up. With seniors Jake Lucchini and Dylan Steman (among others) setting the tone, the Huskies' balance has been nothing short of sensational. Consider this- when looking at Michigan Tech's offensive numbers through 14 games this season, Tech has three players with 10 or more points on their roster and eight players with seven or more. When you take it a step further, the Huskies also have 11 players with six or more points on their roster and 14 with five or more. What's the significance to that? Well, no other team in the league can brag about that type of balance because they don't compare. It's true, some rosters may have more players with 10+ points (Minnesota State has seven), but no other team has the type of balance from top to bottom. That includes the top offensive teams in the WCHA in terms of goals-per-game in MSU and Bowling Green. The Falcons have 13 players on their roster with five or more points, while the Mavericks have 11.
"I think with any good team or championship team, they have balanced scoring and that's one of our strengths here this year. If everyone is scoring and everyone is producing, you are going to win a lot of hockey games," mentioned Lucchini, one of Tech's co-captains and the WCHA Forward of the Month for November. "Not only are we scoring a lot, our defensemen are coming alive. That was kind of a question mark going into this season, but they have done a great job. I think the coaching staff has done an unreal job with them. They continue to learn and get better every day and our goalies are playing really well also. They have good competition back there and I think that's good to have. So far it's been really good. It makes things a lot easier when everyone is chipping in."
There were some question marks. Remember this is the same team that lost numerous marque players from last year, including Mitch Reinke, who signed with the St. Louis Blues after the 2017-18 season, foregoing his last two years in Houghton. Reinke was named to the All-WCHA Third Team last year and was particularly good during Tech's run through the WCHA Playoffs and into the NCAA tournament, striking for one goal and three assists during that stretch. Also gone from last season are Mark Auk, Joel L'Esperance, Brent Baltus and Dane Birks. If you do the math that's over 120 points in offense gone and yet, head coach Joe Shawhan and his team have somehow found a way to plug the holes with a bunch of players all skating in the same direction. It shouldn't be surprising to anyone, after all, year after year that seems to be what Tech does. They seem to have a knack for overcoming adversity and turning what appears to be a negative on the surface into motivation. It shouldn't be surprising…but yet, it still is.
How do they keep on doing it? Enter a core of leaders, like Lucchini, who have seen almost everything hockey has to offer during their time in Houghton. Now a senior, the Trail, British Columbia product has been making the most of his final year dressed in black and yellow. Through 14 games, Lucchini has struck for six goals and has added 10 assists. The preseason All-WCHA Second Team selection is now tied for fifth in overall scoring this season in the conference, tied for fourth in assists and is fifth in power-play points. The senior is also tied for first in total shots, meaning Lucchini- like most of the Tech team- comes at you in waves, with no signs of letting up. And the list doesn't stop there. Fellow senior and co-captain Steman is having one of the best starts of his college career, striking for eight points (3G-5A) in 13 games. He had zero points through 13 games last year. Junior Alex Smith, who has four points in his last four games, now has three goals and six assists through 14 games. Last season, Smith picked up his first goal of his sophomore campaign in game 15. Gavin Gould? Coming off a hat trick two weekends ago against Alaska, the junior has five goals and two assists through 13 games this season. Gould finished with 14 tallies last year. The point is that Michigan Tech's returners were familiar with the names that were going to missing from their roster when the 2018-19 season kicked off and, like every other hurdle they have faced since walking onto campus, they didn't run from it. Rather, they embraced it. There is a certain expectation that goes along with wearing a Michigan Tech uniform and it was now their turn to carry the torch. That, paired with a talented group of newcomers, has changed the talk from who's left, to who's currently here.
"In college hockey you lose guys every year. I remember after my freshman year we lost a ton of guys and every single year that seems to happen. Hopefully guys are having their best years their junior and senior years right before they leave," remarked Steman. "Along with balance, having guys who are ready to step up and guys who have learned from the players who came before them. We had time to see those guys (previous senior classes) and what they were all about. We were able to see and experience that culture that the players before us built. I think a lot of that does come back to professionalism and the culture we have been trying to create here. Culture is something that is very important to us. We want to set a standard and we are striving for greatness. We might not always hit it, but that's what we are shooting for at the end of the day."
"We've gotten tremendous production out of a lot of highly-talented freshmen and that has helped. With that, then you couple that with the culture that the upperclassmen have maintained and maybe even have enhanced. It's an extremely enjoyable team to work with all the way up and down the lineup and you look forward to coming to the rink," replied Michigan Tech head coach Joe Shawhan when asked about his team's balance. "The bottom end is pushing hard. We have a lot of players on the roster- players who aren't playing as much, they are pushing hard to play. We try to be very direct as to what needs to be done and what we are looking for. But also on the other side of it, our top-end guys; our leadership guys and our upperclassmen, they are pulling everyone up to a level where we are today. So it's a combination of recruiting and the great job the coaches have done, along with the type of kids we have and the culture we have built."
Players like the previously mentioned Lucchini, who has let his effort do the talking and his experience do the leading. For example, even though it was very early in the year, after Michigan Tech found themselves 1-3 after being swept at home against defending national champion Minnesota Duluth (including a narrow, one-goal loss in the opener) and splitting with Wisconsin; Tech could have panicked. They could have made excuses about who had departed and how inexperienced their 10 new freshmen were. Instead, Lucchini and his fellow upperclassmen took a deep breath and went back to work. It's the kind of response to adversity you can't understand unless you have been there before. Since that point, Tech's squad has turned on the jets, going 7-2-1 over their last 10 games. Lucchini in particular has been out of this world; scoring 13 of his 16 points during that stretch (six goals, seven assists). Other players on the Huskies roster have been equally as hot during that same time period. Steman has scored all eight of his points this season since game five (3G-5A), Smith has struck for eight of his nine total points (3G-5A last 10 games), sophomore Seamus Donahue has tallied seven assists over his last nine contests, giving his 10 on the year, while freshman Brian Halonen has four points in his last four games (now 4G-6A on the season) and fellow rookie Tommy Parrattino has four of his five goals in the last eight outings. Using their past experience as a guide, the Huskies knew they needed to respond and that's exactly what they did.
"We got swept at home the first weekend by Minnesota Duluth and they are a very good team, but after that series, we talked and set a standard that we're not going to be that team that gets swept anymore; not here at Michigan Tech, that is unacceptable," commented Lucchini. "Two years ago I think we lost our first four games and then we ended up winning the WCHA championship, so I think guys have been through it. Our seniors and our juniors were there when that happened. We have been through that type of struggle early in the year and we know we have to keep chipping away and learn from it but don't dwell on it. We did a good job moving forward."
"At that time I remember everyone was talking about things because on the scoreboard and in terms of points, we were being led by the freshmen and the younger guys in the lineup. People kept talking about how we were being led by them and I had to continue to say at the time that we weren't being led as far as the things in the locker room and the culture of our team by our freshmen, because they were still learning it. We were, and we will always be, led by our upperclassmen because those players have brought three championships in the last three years to this program," explained Shawhan. "We do have some really good freshmen, but the upperclassmen have been through it. They are the ones who share the message about sticking with it, paying attention and learning from it. They have given us a great example to go by this first half of the year. I don't know where we are going to go, but one thing I can say- our guys have really grabbed the essence of what it means to be here and what it means to be a part of this program."
No doubt there is plenty of excitement on the campus of Michigan Technological University. Of course, some of that also has to do with the fact that's it is Northern Michigan week- Tech's opponent this weekend- and there is always an added dose of energy in the air when the Wildcats and Huskies faceoff. Currently separated by eight points in the conference standings, Tech plays at Northern on Friday night before coming home to play game two of the series at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena on Saturday night. From there, the Huskies host Alabama Huntsville leading into the Great Lakes Invitational at the end of December. Each and every game from here on out is important, but these next handful of games are even more so for Shawhan and company. Tech is well aware that momentum isn't easy to get, and when you have it; you need to ride the wave as long as you can. Michigan Tech would love nothing more than to have their current streak extend into early January, which is when the Huskies take on Minnesota State and Bowling Green on back-to-back weekends (January 4-5, January 11-12). Riding the wave….that's something the Huskies have done before isn't it? Shawhan knows from experience that when the ship is moving in the right direction; while he's the captain, his role is to sit back and let his upperclassmen on the team steer the boat.
Yes- it's early and NO ONE in a Michigan Tech uniform is content with where they are at just yet. Still, given who they lost, what they are and where they seem to be going; it can't be ignored just what is happening (again) in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. After all, heading into the season Michigan Tech was picked to finish fourth in the preseason polls by both the coaches and the media. Now sitting in first place through eight conference games, the Huskies, to date, have yet to lose a WCHA game. That's what has made this particular group of players Shawhan has stand out more than anything else. They have seen success- experienced it- demanded it.
Now in his second full season as head coach and fifth season overall behind the Tech bench, Shawhan points out that, while it's always the ultimate goal for every team, not everyone can build the type of culture that the Husky program has become accustomed to over the past several seasons. This group is different. Other teams across the county might have more marquee names or may have more bells and whistles to their game, but at the end of the day Tech has been- and continues to be- one the teams sitting on a chair when the music stops year in and year out. Call it determination. Call it expectation. Call it a culture built on a never-ending work ethic mixed with talent and maybe even a little bit of luck. Call it what you want. Folks in Houghton, Mich. simply call it Michigan Tech hockey.
"I think some of that goes back to where we are. We play in Houghton, Mich.; it's not a sexy school. We're not chartering flights all over the country, but at the end of the day we know we are a good hockey team and that's what's most important in our locker room," stated Steman. "We work every single day trying to get better. You might not get the all-star recruits that coaches are always looking for, but here we have installed that blue-collar attitude and we embrace that. Guys have something to prove when they come here."
"I think there is something special about these kids. They are good hockey players but even more so, they have great character. Our Athletic Director [Dr. Suzanne Sanregret] says it perfectly, this place is not for everyone but it is the right place for the lucky ones, because they are going to come out of here as being part of a great hockey program with great support; both from the University and the surrounding community, and they are going to come out of here with an outstanding degree," concluded Shawhan. "Playing here at Tech, it is not for everyone, but it is for the special ones and those fortunate enough to get the opportunity to be here."