Minnesota will conclude the first half of the 2011-12 season with a team it has bullied as of late: Michigan Tech.
The Gophers swept the Huskies twice last season and have won the last seven games between the two teams.
This year, however, Michigan Tech could serve as more of a road block than the usual doormat for the Gophers.
The Huskies have vastly improved from last season, when they finished with an overall record of 4-30-4. They’re off to an 8-7-1 start and were ranked as recently as last week before getting swept by Minnesota-Duluth.
“Michigan Tech has really got a good team this year,” freshman Seth Ambroz said. “They’re winning games. It will be a fun competitive series and hopefully we come out on top.”
Michigan Tech swept then-No. 18 Wisconsin on Oct. 14-15 and split a series with then-No. 2 Denver two weeks later.
The Huskies started the season 5-2-1 and their No. 16 national ranking was the first since Oct. 24, 2007 under first-year head coach Mel Pearson.
Michigan Tech (8-7-1, 5-6-1 WCHA) is currently tied for sixth in the league with 11 points.
Brett Olson and Jordan Baker lead the Huskies on offense with 17 and 13 points, respectively. They also return Ryan Furne and Milos Gordic, who led the team in scoring last season as freshmen.
Gordic leads Michigan Tech with seven goals on the season, but has yet to record an assist.
No. 2 Minnesota (13-4-1, 10-2-0 WCHA) enters the series seemingly having regained its swagger after a sweep of Minnesota State last weekend.
It was the Gophers’ first sweep in nearly a month and kept them atop the WCHA, with rival Minnesota-Duluth closing fast.
“We just kind of found a way to get two points each night,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “That was the biggest thing for us — two wins is two wins.
“We’re going to need those points, especially with UMD playing the way they are right now.”
Forward Zach Budish played a pivotal role in earning the sweep and has now recorded a point in five straight games.
He plays on the first line with Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau and credited his linemates for his recent success.
“It’s fun to play with those two but as a line, we’re starting to click and know where each other is going to be without even looking,” Budish said. “It’s been 18 games now together and we practice every day together so we’re starting to get comfortable.”
The Gophers also improved their home record to 8-1-0 on the season with the sweep last weekend. They were 9-10-3 at Mariucci Arena last year.
“One of our goals at the start of the year … was that we wanted to protect home ice as much as possible,” Schmidt said. “It’s gotten away from us the last couple years. That’s one of the biggest things — getting in front of the home fans and performing the way we know we can.”
Despite sweeping Minnesota State, the Gophers struggled on the penalty kill. The Mavericks converted on three power-play opportunities in that series.
“We’re going to work on our specialties much more this week,” head coach Don Lucia said. “We’ll spend three days working on our penalty kill and that’s something we have to clean up — Michigan Tech has a good power play.”
The Huskies possess the seventh-ranked power play unit in the WCHA and have netted 15 power-play goals on the season.
The Gophers will start a 20-day stretch without a game after this series with Michigan Tech, which will mark the midway point in the season.
Budish said it is important to build momentum heading into the extended break.
“This weekend we’re just focused on getting four points, taking that momentum into break and then going from there,” Budish said. “If you would have told me that this is our record in the league and overall at this point in the season, I probably would have taken it, but with that being said we’re definitely not satisfied.”
Minnesota will host the Mariucci Classic on Dec. 30-31 and the Hall of Fame Game against Notre Dame on Jan. 7.