Bob Herpen: Michigan Tech are Kings of the D-I Mountain

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Let’s forget about the fact that the Western Collegiate Hockey Association underwent a downshift in power with the conference realignments that took place before last season.

Discard the notion that the conference is no longer in the upper echelon of competition both regionally and on the national stage once North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Denver all vacated for different pastures.

There’s only one undefeated and untied program in all of Division I and the WCHA has it: Michigan Tech. The school located on the arm of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and boasts more than 7,000 students gained its first-ever No.1 ranking this afternoon.

This past Friday and Saturday, the Huskies made it a program-record 10-for-10 on the young season by taking a pair at Bemidji State, 2-1 and 4-2.

When taking into account how much of a tear this is for a school not named Minnesota or Boston College or Union or Minnesota-Duluth, consider the following: Tech didn’t win its 10th game until January 31 last season and February 9 the year before that, the program hasn’t finished above .500 since 2006-07 under Jamie Russell, and hasn’t reached 20 wins since 1987-88 under Herb Boxer.

The Huskies defense ranks as one of the top in the nation, having allowed three goals or fewer in all 10 games, and, save for an opening night 5-3 win against Lake Superior State, has limited the opposition to two or less in nine straight.

At the end of the chain lies Jamie Phillips, the junior netminder who has shouldered the entire load thus far and recorded a pair of shutouts. As such, his 10 wins are best in the nation, his save percentage (.957) is tied for third in the country with Mike Santaguida of Vermont and his 1.20 goals-against shockingly places just fourth behind Santaguida, Dalton Izyk of Robert Morris and Northern Michigan’s Mathias Dahlstrom.

For the Tech offense, balance be thy name. No player ranks in the top 20 in the major statistical categories, and all but Phillips and frosh defenseman Mark Auk have recorded at least one point. Tanner Kero, a senior pivot, leads the club with eight assists and 12 points, while junior Alex Petan has pumped home a team-best five goals.

Mel Pearson inherited a team which won a mere four games under Russell in 2010-11 and 15 over Russell’s final three campaigns in charge, and put together years of 16, 13 and 14 wins before this season’s explosion out of the gate. He’s in charge of a squad which features five seniors –- including last year’s co-scoring champ and team captain Blake Pietila –- six juniors, seven sophomores and five freshmen. That means Pearson will have at least two more years’ worth of growth from this current crop no matter if the Huskies can maintain this searing pace or not.

Pearson, along with assistants Bill Muckalt and Joe Shawhan possess deep hockey roots in the state. Pearson had been an associate coach alongside Red Berenson at Michigan, Shawhan had previously served as an assistant with Northern Michigan while Muckalt was a two-time national champ as a player under Berenson with the Wolverines (’96 and ’98).

On Friday night, Phillips was the star with 35 saves while C.J. Eich scored shorthanded in the second period and Petan netted the eventual winner less than four minutes later. One night later, MTU extended its win streak over Matt Read’s Beavers by overcoming a 2-1 deficit late in the second period. Tyler Heinonen got the rally going on a power-play score with 1:34 left in the middle frame, then Petan tallied in the opening minute of the third and Kero sealed it with an empty netter in the final 20 seconds. Phillips came up with his fourth 30-plus save effort to preserve the winning margin.

As the only school in the nation without a loss or tie and slotted at No. 5 last week, it should have been a no-brainer for voters to provide something close to a unanimous selection, but no. MTU was only granted 24 of the available 50 first-place votes with the leftovers slotted to North Dakota and Boston University.

The Huskies have quite a ways to go before tackling the two longest winning streaks of recent years: Union’s two-season run of 17 straight from late February through October 24 and Boston College’s 19 in a row to complete a title season in 2012. They’ll continue their quest for perfection this weekend with two on home ice against Minnesota State.

Not bad for a program whose next most famous alumnus besides Tony Esposito is long-time Philadelphia Flyers broadcaster Steve Coates. Coates skated for the Huskies from 1969-73, accumulating 25 goals and 54 points over 100 games. Tech waited until after Coatesy hit the pros to reach three straight NCAA championships, losing twice to Minnesota and winning once from 1974-76. DeSmith removed from UNH roster

Whether it’s due to lacking focus or acumen academics, or indulging an excess of alcohol or drugs, failing to meet the requirements of your team or other misbehaviors, there’s no joy in reporting that a student-athlete will no longer be able to participate at a high level in his chosen sport. Youthful indiscretions are acceptable to a point, but in the case of one specific mode of unacceptable actions which has drawn much-needed attention in recent years, it’s hard to look past to find a silver lining.

On Monday, multiple outlets reported that embattled junior goaltender Casey DeSmith was removed from New Hampshire’s roster and is no longer with the team.

Back on September 3, DeSmith was arrested and charged with domestic assault and resisting arrest stemming from an incident in Durham on Aug. 30 where a woman described as DeSmith’s girlfriend was “thrown to the ground, jumped on top of and was repeatedly punched and spat upon.” He was subsequently suspended indefinitely pending a continuation of the legal process.

The 23-year-old New Hampshire native finished last season with a 20-16-0 record, 2.40 goals-against average and three shutouts and was the incumbent starter for Dick Umile’s Wildcats for the previous two campaigns. He ends his UNH tenure at 48-36-8, nine shutouts and a 2.32 GAA.

In his absence, Umile turned to junior Jamie Reagan and freshman Adam Clark to shoulder the load. Clark has gone 4-6-0 with a 2.76 goals-against average and may face additional competition if Danny Tirone is able to enroll for the second semester, If so, he’ll be eligible to play as early as late December.

After an unbroken chain of success dating back to 1996, Umile is staring down the prospect of two losing campaigns in the last four years –- something which hasn’t happened since the 65-year-old took over in 1990. Don’t forget to follow on Twitter: @pelle31lives

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