|(above) Brett Olson leads Michigan Tech with 30 points|
by Stephan Anderson
Michigan Tech and No. 9 Denver, who face off Thursday, are both happy to be at the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five this week, but for different reasons.
"Once athletes and coaches experience it, they want to come back," Denver coach George Gwozdecky said in a teleconference Tuesday afternoon.
Tech wouldn't know.
None of the Huskies' coaching staff or players has ever participated in the Final Five, which will be held at the Xcel Energy Center Thursday through Saturday. Tech last reached the tournament in 2007, and lost 4-0 to Wisconsin in its first game.
"Obviously we haven't been here in a while, but we're happy to be here," Tech coach Mel Pearson said in the teleconference. "I don't think anybody predicted us to make it to St. Paul."
But the Huskies put all the pieces together at just the right time in sweeping Colorado College in the first round of the playoffs.
The team never returned to Houghton, instead opting to fly straight to the Twin Cities and re-acclimate to the NHL-sized ice, and get a feel for the 18,064-seat Xcel Energy Center.
Pearson knows a thing or two about the arena having coached the University of Michigan to a runner-up finish in last year's Frozen Four. Tech watched the Minnesota vs. Dallas NHL game Tuesday night and will conduct a short walk-through-style practice this afternoon at the arena.
"As much as you want to say it's just another game, it's obviously big, but we played well at Joe Louis Arena in the same type of atmosphere and venue in our holiday tournament," Pearson said Tuesday night. "We brought the team to the game tonight ... so the team won't be wowed when they come into the building for practice and Thursday's game."
As with most playoff teams, Tech's success will depend more on executing the game plan that got them to the tournament than adjusting to an opponent - especially since winning the Broadmoor Trophy would require beating three different teams in three days.
The first of those teams, Denver, represents a rematch of one of Tech's most memorable regular season weekends. The Huskies beat the Pioneers 7-2 on Oct. 28, 2011, the most goals Denver has allowed in a game all year. Granted, three of those goals were on an empty net, but Tech followed that up the following night with a 2-2 tie with the then-No. 2 Pioneers.
Of course Pearson knows Denver learned from that experience and the Pioneers have been a different team in the second half of the season.
Denver, which won its first-round series 2-1 over Wisconsin, compiled an 11-4-1 record in the 2012 portion of the regular season.
"They've really come on defensively ... and they've made their game a lot simpler," Pearson said. "It's a little different style than earlier in the season where they played a more up-tempo style."
DU goaltender Sam Brittain also returned from injury in the second half of the year and has earned a 7-3 record and .925 save percentage. The Pioneers have three goaltenders who have played in at least 10 games and have a save percentage greater than .900.
Offensively, Denver has relied heavily on Drew Shore (50 points), Jason Zucker (44 points) and Nick Shore (39 points). The Pioneers have two other players with 28 points or more. Tech only has two players with at least 28 points: Brett Olson and David Johnstone with 30.
"We have no superstars, but we're ... really the consummate team where everybody is working well and contributing," Pearson said in the teleconference. "We're starting to play our best hockey. ... Unfortunately (home ice) didn't turn out like we wanted, but playing CC really helped our team prepare for this weekend.
"(Thursday) we'll go with the same lineup from both games at CC. It was a winning combination and everybody played pretty well," he added.
Thursday's faceoff is slated for 1:07 p.m. MT, and if Tech wins, it would face Minnesota-Duluth at 3:07 p.m. Friday. If Tech beat UMD, it would play in the championship game at 8:07 p.m. Saturday.