After a sweep on the road at Lake Superior State which featured the Charger’s first shutout in over five years, Alabama-Huntsville headed home this weekend poised to take a leap ahead in the WCHA’s pecking order for the first time since joining the conference in 2013. Unfortunately for UAH, Michigan Tech had other machinations, sweeping the Chargers and dropping UAH’s overall record to 3-4-1.
In the opener on Friday night, the Chargers planned to come out aggressively. They did exactly that, with sophomore forward Josh Kestner putting a puck past Huskies’ goaltender Jamie Phillips just 1:21 into the game.
“We wanted to shove them and punch them in the mouth a little bit and we did,” head coach Mike Corbett said. “We did a great job of getting the puck down low, moving the puck around, getting the puck low-to-high, getting shots and we were able to get that goal to start it. Then unfortunately we fall asleep a little bit about three minutes later.”
“We just tried to beat them to the puck,” sophomore defenseman Brandon Parker said. “They’re a fast team, we tried to be a faster team. We tried to eliminate turnovers, but that’s what they capitalized on. It’s what they’re good at and they come down to score. If we can eliminate those things and play our game, we can do what we want to do.”
Three minutes after the Kestner goal, Michigan Tech’s Joel L’Esperance tied the game at one. UAH’s game plan seemed to slip away after that. The Huskies added two more before the end of the first intermission to go up 3-1.
“We got away from the game after the first ten minutes and started playing more their kind of style,” junior goaltender Matt Larose said.
Early in Friday’s second period, the Chargers got a huge break on a freak play. Parker scored his first collegiate goal a little over a minute in when Phillips misplayed a bouncing puck that had come from near the opposite goal crease.
“I was just trying to get it out of the zone,” Parker said. “I saw (Matt) Salhany stretching. Obviously, it got a little higher than I wanted it to and I bounced it. Next thing I know it was in the back of the net. First goal? I’ll take it.”
“Pucks were bouncing all night,” Corbett said. “We threw some on theirs. They started throwing some on our goalie. Pucks are bouncing all night and those are some of the ones where this is a tough building to track. You have to track a puck from 170 feet and it bounces up and over him. We’ll take them any way we can get them.”
The third period began with a checking from behind major and a game misconduct on senior captain Brent Fletcher. In addition, freshman defenseman Cam Knight was given a holding penalty on the same play. Despite two minutes of three-on-five with another three of four-on-five, the Chargers held on. Unfortunately for the Chargers, UAH was not able to capitalize, giving up a late goal and losing the first game by a 4-2 final.
“You have to take control of the game,” Parker said. “You have a leader down, but you still have to come together as a team and pull through it. Five minutes – if we can get through that, we can get through anything. It just came down to teamwork, talking and working things out.”
“You want that to be a big boost for your team,” Corbett said. “In the third period at that point in time with the ice being so bad, us chasing them, we’re running out of gas. You’d think we’d get up emotionally but it didn’t necessarily work in a positive favor for us.”
“Our penalty kill was what we wanted to work on all week,” he added. “They had the one power play goal on the tip, but we’re kind of figuring out who our penalty killers are. It’s tough because Brent Fletcher is one of our main penalty killers and he gets the five minute penalty. We do need to be able to use that as an emotional lift and we didn’t. Unfortunately we kind of ran out of gas. I primarily used four or five guys on that penalty kill over the course of that 5-on-3 and 5-on-4 and that’s where the other guys have to absorb the minutes. We have to get a boost on them.”
Larose stopped 36 of the Huskies’ 40 shots on Friday night.
“He was solid,” Corbett said. “He made the saves he needed to make and that’s all we want our goaltender to do. That’s one where all the goals were given up, I never press them on the goaltender. Especially that fourth one that’s kind of a back-breaker. We got beat to the net. You’d love him to make a save but we got beat to the net and outworked. That can’t happen in a one-goal game with six minutes left.”
Junior goaltender Carmine Guerriero got the start on Saturday, but for the Chargers the end-result was much of the same. For the second night in a row, UAH had to kill off a major penalty while also losing one of the team’s senior leaders – this time senior Chad Brears was called for checking from behind early in the first period. For the second game in a row the Chargers killed the penalty but did not capitalize. Michigan Tech scored two first period goals en route to a 2-1 win and a weekend sweep.
“Our penalty kill was good,” Corbett said. “They gave up the one goal in the back door and the tip-in last night, but overall our penalty kill was solid. It was what I was worried about going into the weekend. Lake (Superior) State didn’t score on the power play last week, but our penalty kill was kind of a mess. We knew we had to fix that and we did.”
Brears’ early exit on Saturday meant that some other Chargers had to step up, with freshman Tyler Poulsen taking the lion’s share of the minutes. He earned the Chargers’ lone second period shot on Saturday night.
“After Brears went out, we kind of rotated our right wings,” Corbett said. “Salhany, Poulsen and Kestner those guys primarily got the additional ice time. Poulsen, he’s a guy who was here last year, but he didn’t get any games so he was kind of fighting it. It’s nice to give him a little bit of confidence, too.”
According to Corbett, losing Brears for the game might not have hurt as much as it appeared.
“The way we play is kind of ‘next guy up’,” Corbett said. “We mix our lines up so much we should be able to slide anybody in there. That line has some continuity, but some of the other lines we’ve been looking for answers. So now we move lines around and maybe we’ve found a new line out of that.”
In a bizarre turn of events, the Chargers were the beneficiaries of nearly ten consecutive minutes of power play time in the third period of Saturday night’s contest as Michigan Tech’s Chris Leibinger was sent off for contacting Parker to the head while Matt Roy was sent off for checking sophomore Brennan Saulnier from behind merely six seconds after the first major ended. The Chargers just managed one goal and five shots during that stretch. Michigan Tech, by comparison, had three shots.
“They did a good job of stacking the neutral zone and not letting us in,” Corbett said. “It came down to a special teams battle and their special teams won.”
Perhaps the biggest issue all weekend for the Chargers was an inability to convert on the power play, as UAH scored only once in 11 opportunities. The Chargers only managed eight shots on goal with the extra man all weekend, while Michigan Tech rattled off the same number of shots while down a man.
“Both teams pressure. We both kind of play the same kind of penalty kill,” Corbett said. “We want to even pressure out top. It’s guys over handling the puck. Our biggest problem was getting into the zone and getting set up. Once we got set up, I think both teams were able to get the shots they wanted at certain times. For us it was getting from the top of our circles to the top of their circles and I think that’s what hurt us.”
The last time Guerriero played against Michigan Tech was during the WCHA playoffs, the first game of which he kept the Huskies locked down and scoreless into the third overtime. That weekend, he had nearly 180 minutes in goal in a little over 24 hours. This weekend he just had 60.
“It would have been nicer to play 65, get the tie at least,” Guerriero said.
Guerriero stopped 28 of the 30 Michigan Tech shots that came his way on Saturday, his best showing since the Chargers’ opening weekend victory over Connecticut.
“He was good,” Corbett said. “It’s nice because that’s the guy we saw last year. He’d been fighting the puck and he was really good tonight. Both goalies gave us a chance to win both nights and he did tonight.”
“I think it was just an adjustment at the beginning of the year, but I’m back,” Guerriero said. “I didn’t have the start I wanted to, but I’m back to normal now.”
“I wouldn’t say he was off,” Corbett said. “but I would say he’s more comfortable now. You never want to call a loss a ‘good loss’ but that’s one position that going into our next series against Bowling Green, we know we’ve got two guys ready.”
“To be honest, when Larose played and got that shutout (versus Lake Superior State),” Guerriero said, “it was really inspiring to see him work hard out there and he really deserved it. It just inspired me to come to work and practice and go get it.”
The 30 shots Guerriero faced – while low from a Michigan Tech perspective – were the most he’d faced since the opening weekend versus Connecticut.
“When he gets a lot of work, it keeps our goalie in the game, that’s for sure,” Corbett said. “Either way, I’m going to have to tell him, ‘You’re going to have to get used to stopping 30 because we only want to give up 30.'”
“At the end of the day, I just have to give my team a chance to win,” Guerriero said. “It was just get in front of the puck. I had the same mindset all game whether we were up a guy or down a guy.”
The two losses this weekend dropped UAH’s winless streak against Michigan Tech to ten. The Chargers have never won in their series against the Huskies, which began in 2014 after the Chargers joined the WCHA.
“We respect them too much,” Guerriero said. “We give them room. We make mistakes and give the puck up. Obviously, they’re a good team and they can convert. We need to be better than that. If we’re more aggressive and play our game – because we’ve got a really good system – we should be able to win games.”
“From a fan’s perspective, it’s probably nice to see we’re competing with them, but we’re not satisfied with a loss,” he added. “At the end of the day, we lost four points this weekend. No one’s happy about it.”
The road will not get much easier for the Chargers as they head to Bowling Green after a bye weekend to take on a team picked by several to win the conference.
“We know we’ve got the group to succeed,” Guerriero said. “It’s just the will. The past two games, I don’t know. When we face these big teams, it’s like we sit back and respect them too much and I think we just have to come out with a little swagger. We know we’re good. We’re capable of beating teams. We just have to come out and play hard against them.”
“We have to play better defensively,” Corbett said. “We have to get our young defensemen to be able to be more aggressive. Michigan Tech is a team that when you make mistakes, they make you pay. We’re lucky our goaltender was able to bail us out. We have to take care of our own end. If we don’t stop the puck in our defensive zone and get the puck back, we’re going to be defending a lot. Against this team, we didn’t do a great job of stopping the puck and getting our second guy in there. When you don’t stop it, you end up chasing it. They end up making a lot of plays.”
As for what the Chargers will work on in the off week…
“Everything,” Guerriero said. “Back to square one Tuesday.”