HOUGHTON, Mich. — Located in the far reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Michigan Tech has never been easily accessible.
And in spite of an excellent hockey tradition, after four consecutive 20-loss seasons — including 30 this season — it seems to be the place where college hockey dynasties go to die.
Minnesota (17-13-2, 12-9-2 WCHA) took advantage of the horrible Huskies (4-30-0, 2-24-0) this weekend, taking four valuable WCHA points on the strength of 9-2 and 4-1 wins.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia worked hard last week to ensure his team would not take the Huskies lightly.
“These are the games that scare you as a coach,” Lucia said after Friday night’s 9-2 bludgeoning. “You’re worried about the guy’s heads being in the game to a certain extent.”
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Minnesota coaches used to worry about playing Michigan Tech, but for much different reasons.
For an unprecedented three straight seasons from 1973-74 to 1975-76, the Huskies and the Gophers squared off in the NCAA championship series.
Minnesota won in ’74, with the Huskies winning in ’75. The Gophers triumphed again in 1976. They went on to another title in 1979 and have numerous Final Four appearances since then. Tech has never been back.
There are reasons.
With its remote location and relatively small number of majors, recruiting in the Upper Peninsula has become increasingly tough. It hasn’t helped that programs elsewhere in the state, like Michigan and Michigan State, have remained powerhouses, while teams like Northern Michigan are on the upswing.
And even though Tech has been horrible this season, Minnesota coaches feared another Saturday night collapse like the swoons the Gophers experienced against Mankato and Colorado College.
After a lackluster first period had the Gophers up by only one, the normally positive Lucia had some strong words for his squad about what would happen should they drop the game.
“We might have taken the bus right to Mariucci and practiced,” Lucia joked after the Gophers responded by scoring two more power-play goals en route to the 4-2 win.
“I was happy with the final effort. It was a workman-like win. We got up on them and never let down,” Lucia said.
“We were goofing around a bit, and he let us know after the first (period) that our heads weren’t in the game,” freshman Jeff Taffe said. “We picked it up but it shouldn’t take him saying something to get us going.”
The series had a familiar pattern. All weekend, inferior Tech skaters would drag an attacking Gopher down, drawing a penalty. Minnesota’s top power-play line of Nate Miller, John Pohl, and Erik Westrum would skate on with Jordan Leopold and Dylan Mills manning the points.
Minnesota would then move the puck around at will, usually burying the puck within the first minute. If the first line had trouble, Aaron Miskovich, Jeff Taffe and Dave Spehar would skate on. The Huskies certainly could tell no difference.
Overall, Minnesota was a blistering 7 of 15 with the extra man for the weekend, solidifying its position as the best power-play team in the nation.
“We were playing a team that certainly isn’t as good as the teams we’ve been playing lately, and it gave us the chance to open up and make some plays,” freshman forward Dan Welch said. “Hopefully we can carry that over and continue to have that kind of success on the power play.”
And it was the power play that carried over into the rest of the game, setting the tone for the weekend during the second period Friday night.
Just two minutes in, Michigan Tech’s Adrian Fure took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. A minute later, Dylan Mills banged a slap shot home from the point. Game over.
The Gophers reeled off five second period goals, four on the power play, to rout the Huskies 9-2.
Dave Spehar registered his first hat trick in a Minnesota uniform, scoring the last Gophers goal on the evening.
Minnesota coaches were pleased with Friday’s effort and told the team not to let up despite a 5-2 lead heading into the third. With a tight race in the middle of the WCHA, they were keeping an eye on possible goal differential tie-breakers with Minnesota State and Colorado College.
The wins only moved Minnesota up one spot in the WCHA standings, into fifth, as all the top teams in the league came away with wins. But Lucia said his team shouldn’t feel like it was spinning its wheels.
“All we can do is keep winning. I’m not sure how many points it will take for home ice anymore, but as long as we keep winning we’ll be fine,” Lucia said.
Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]