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February 1, 2012
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Michigan Tech Turns Tables
Resurgent Huskies Prospering Under New Head Coach Mel Pearson

by John Gilbert, for WCHA.com
Resurgent Huskies Prospering Under New Head Coach Mel Pearson

Michigan Tech was in the perfect position to fail, when the Huskies made their first visit to Minnesota Duluth's new AMSOIL Arena to end January. But that would be the "old" Huskies - the ones that had struggled in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in recent years and seemed to be mired at the bottom for as long as current players and fans can remember. This season's Huskies bear no resemblance to the past.

Michigan Tech rallied furiously for a 4-4 overtime tie last Friday (Jan. 27) night, after trailing 4-0, then shocked top-ranked UMD 5-0 last Saturday (Jan. 28) night for a three-point weekend that boosted the Huskies to a 9-7-2 record in the WCHA. That ninth victory was a lofty plateau for Tech's seniors, when you consider that the Huskies won only eight games in their previous three seasons - total.

"We were on the bottom all three of my first three years at Tech," said team captain Brett Olson, who assisted on Tech's tying goal Friday, and started Saturday's rout with the early game-winning goal. "We were stuck in a valley. It was tough on the coaches, and we can't blame anybody, but the new coaching staff has brought us renewed life and given us a clean slate."

Michigan Tech alumnus Mel Pearson was lured away from Michigan to replace Jamie Russell, who had worked hard but without luck to lift the Tech fortunes, but couldn't break through. Tech won only two WCHA games last season. Mel Pearson Jr. has had an interesting hockey history. His dad, the late Mel Pearson Sr., was from Flin Flon, Manitoba, and played for the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the World Hockey Association. While there, he got Mel Jr. enrolled at Edina High School, and when Mel Sr. retired and returned to Flin Flon, he made sure Mel Jr. was billeted with a family to stay at so Edina and play in the Minnesota State High School Tournament.

"My younger brother (Ted) also went to Edina, played on a state championship team, and went to Wisconsin where he played on an NCAA championship team," said Mel.

After playing at Edina, Mel Pearson went to Michigan Tech to play for legendary coach John MacInnes, and he stayed to assist new coach Jim Nahrgang at Tech after graduating. Then he went to Michigan, where he spent 23 years as assistant and then associate head coach with Red Berenson. That's where Pearson had his last exposure to UMD - when the Bulldogs beat Michigan in overtime to win their first NCAA championship title last April. While most people figured Pearson as the obvious heir to Berenson at Michigan, the lure to return to the Upper Peninsula for the challenge of restructuring his alma mater was an important personal decision. He brought in Bill Muckalt, a former Wolverine, and kept second-year assistant Damon Whitten, from Michigan State, and former Michigan goaltender Steve Shields, as his staff.

Tech had a crop of decent, hard-working players, who seemed to be locked into a culture that, willingly or not, had to accept losing as readily as accepting that it snows every winter day in Houghton. That scenario was confronted head-on, but delicately, by the new coaching staff, all of whom came from programs that had cultures of never accepting losing.

"The first thing I saw was that we had to start getting the players to believe in themselves, to realize that they were good enough to succeed," said Pearson. "The players are the ones who have done it; we've just given them some direction."

Still, the situation looked bleak enough Friday night that Tech's biggest weekend of the season looked remote. Wanna talk imposing? Tech had lost twice to Minnesota Duluth earlier in the season in Houghton, and now was facing the No. 1-ranked and defending NCAA champion Bulldogs, who had an eight-game winning streak against Tech, and had only lost once in the past 20 games. In addition, with a full house of 6,670 at AMSOIL Arena, UMD jumped off to a 4-0 lead in the first period.

"We knew that wasn't us in the first period," said Olson, Tech's senior top-line center, captain, and leading scorer. "We wanted to make up for it."

A bold statement, but bold might be the best description of the new Michigan Tech Huskies. They chipped into that 4-0 deficit when Ryan Furne knocked in a Tanner Kero pass on a 3-on-1 rush late in the evenly-played second period, but nobody in the arena had any reason to expect any major change, with the possible exception of the loud little group of black-and-gold clad Tech fans, known as "Mitch's Misfits." That group, seated high up in the eastern end of the arena, had chanted "Let's go, Huskies" even as the score had mounted against Tech in the first period.

In the third period, they were positively delirious when the Huskies stunned the Bulldogs by simply taking over the game. In the opening minute of the third period, Blake Pietila rushed deep on the left, passed to Olson, who relayed it across the slot where Jordan Baker scored at 0:41. Tech found itself shorthanded for five minutes after a checking from behind penalty, but the only goal on that stretch came when Jacob Johnstone rifled a 45-foot shorthanded missile past goaltender Kenny Reiter at 8:54, closing the count to 4-3.

The Huskies killed another penalty against a Minnesota Duluth power-play that had fallen into the midst of an 0-for-20 slump over five games, then UMD drew a cross-checking penalty with seven minutes remaining, and David Johnstone knocked in a rebound at 14:12. That three-goal outburst was the reward Tech earned from out-shooting the Bulldogs 19-8 in the third period, and tied the game 4-4. UMD, which has established a tradition of outplaying foes in the third period, had to hang on desperately to hold that tie through overtime.

Impressive as the comeback was, the way Tech played was more impressive. In the past decade, Tech became known as being tough to play against because they would fall back defensively, hang on physically, and hope for an offensive break. No longer.

"We changed the style," said Pearson. "Instead of 'defend-defend-defend,' we wanted to play more of a skating game, and I think it suits the players we have."

Most of "Mitch's Misfits" undoubtedly agree, especially those who gathered at the end of the corridor leading to Tech's dressing room, and heartily applauded for each player as they approached. And that was after the first game, in which Michigan Tech snapped the school record-tying 22-game point-scoring streak of UMD captain and top-line center Jack Connolly. The series reconnected Connolly and Olson, two old rivals from high school, and beyond. Connolly starred at Duluth Marshall when Olson was doing the same at Superior (Wis.) High School.

"I've played against Jack since we were little kids," said Olson, who notched two assists in the first game.

The the Friday night comeback was enough of a blow to Minnesota Duluth that coach Scott Sandelin changed all four of his lines for the Saturday night rematch, hoping to jack up the inspiration. But the "new" Huskies had something different in mind. Such as a complete reversal of the first game's opening period.

Midway through the scoreless first period, a UMD defenseman made a hasty move to get rid of the puck, and it went directly onto the stick blade of Olson, who walked in and drilled his shot through Reiter at 9:25. A couple minutes later, Tech got a power-play and freshman Blake Pietila, deep on the right side, jammed a pass to the goal-mouth and it glanced into the net off a defenseman's skate. Another UMD penalty, and David Johnstone, another freshman, rushed up the middle, passing right, to Blake Pietila, who relayed it back for Johnstone to drill for a 3-0 lead. Before the period ended, David Johnstone again rushed up the middle, this time passing to the right circle, where Jacob Johnstone, his sophomore brother, put it away.

Apparently, after rallying to come back from a four-goal first-period deficit in the first game, the Huskies decided to try it with a four-goal first-period lead in the second game. Sandelin pulled Reiter for Aaron Crandall in the second period, which was scoreless, then he switched his forward lines back to their usual posts for the third period. But if the Bulldogs were desperate for a goal early in the third to start a comeback of their own, Tanner Kero instead made it 5-0 for the Huskies, with Blake Pietila getting his second assist and third point.

Josh Robinson, the victim of some UMD sharp-shooting in the first period of the first game, never allowed another goal for the weekend, and while his outstanding goalie play was pivotal, Michigan Tech scored nine consecutive goals to finish the weekend and throw a serious twist in UMD's plans for the WCHA title.

"UMD has the best team, with the best players," said Olson. "In the first period (Friday), we were trying to take shortcuts. But we came back. Now that we've had some success, we know we can do it, but we don't want to be satisfied. Every game, not many get to see behind the scenes, to see the struggles we've had. We're playing the best teams, and we're not quitting. Our fans have been unreal. They've backed us through all the years. They've been waiting a long time to see us win. So have we."

Those fans started celebrating early on Saturday, and after it got to be 5-0, they chanted, "Over-rated...over-rated..." in a good-natured taunt at UMD.

"I like a lot of things about our team," said Pearson. "All the elements are there, and I could see it the first weekend. We had some tough luck, then we swept Wisconsin. Then we beat Minnesota, and Denver, and now I expect that, every night. You look at UMD's stats, and they've been dominant in the second and third periods, but out guys are resilient. We can't change what's happened in the past, but I'm so happy for our seniors. They won only eight league games the last three years combined, and now they're talking about home ice in the playoffs."

Robinson, a workhorse in goal, joins Brett Olson and wingers Jordan Baker, Alex MacLeod, and Bryce Reddick as the five seniors in the Tech lineup. Olson has been a determined ring-leader. His 17-17=34 scoring totals lead the Huskies in scoring, and through 26 games, the quality of his points is as impressive as the quantity. In the WCHA-opening series, Olson assisted on the 2-1 overtime game-winning goal, then scored the 3-2 game-winner in overtime in the second game. He had a goal and an assist, with the assist on the eventual game-winner in the 7-2 shocker against Denver, and he scored the tying goal in the 2-2 rematch. Olson also assisted on the goal in the 1-0 victory over Minnesota State-Mankato, and scored the game-winning goal in overtime to beat Minnesota 3-2.

After that, Olson went four straight games without a point - and Michigan Tech lost all four of those games. But at Duluth, his homecoming to the Twin Ports was perfect, with his assist on the trying goal Friday and his game-winner opener Saturday. Taking three points from pre-season favorite Denver, three points from top-ranked UMD, and splitting with Minnesota gives the Huskies a valid shot at surviving the logjam in the middle of the WCHA race, where a top-six finish would mean home ice for the first round of playoffs - something that might send historians back to the John MacInnes era.

"When you look at the points, we can't worry about other teams," said Olson. "We've got a chance for home ice in the playoffs - absolutely there's a chance; we wouldn't come out and play every night if we didn't think there was a chance."

It's just that some Huskies have had to wait longer than others to make good on that chance.