Back-checking is not glamorous. It does not carry the cachet of a flashy glove save or a bar-down one-timer, or anything that brings fans to the edge of their seats. You could wait forever to see back-checking on the highlights — we tend to crave spectacular goals and jaw-dropping saves.
Yet, of all the key elements in UAA’s 3-1 win over Michigan Tech on Friday — the first career goals for freshmen wingers Dylan Hubbs and Tanner Dusyk, Jordan Kwas’ first goal in eight games and Rob Gunderson’s 22 saves — the Seawolves’ back-checking proved as pivotal as any.
On at least a handful of occasions, the Huskies hit the red line with a slight odd-man rush — a 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 — only to have that advantage quashed before they reached the top of the face-off circles in UAA’s zone.
Back-checking is basic stuff — skating hard, playing catch-up as it were, to get back in the play and neutralize the opponents’ advantage. And that’s how a 3-on-2 devolves into a 3-on-3, or a 2-on-1 becomes a 2-on-2.
“It’s been preached to us the last couple weeks — we’re coming back hard to our blue line, we’re getting our head up and we’re finding our assignment,’’ Dusyk said.
When UAA first-year coach Matt Thomas previously was bench boss for the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder, his teams were at their best when they back-checked consistently and relentlessly. He’s delivered the same message to the Seawolves.
“When he talks about back-checking, he talks about guys going the whole way, all 200 feet if you have to,’’ Gunderson said.
That persistent labor helped the Seawolves (6-4-1, 3-3-1 WCHA) remain perfect at Sullivan, where they are 5-0-0 entering Saturday night’s series finale with the Huskies (4-8-1, 2-3-0 WCHA).
They’re also more familiar than the Huskies with the Olympic-sized ice at Sullivan, which at 200 feet wide is 15 feet wider than the NHL-sized ice at most WCHA venues. The Huskies often veered wide when they enjoyed slight odd-man rushes, and that lateral movement afforded the Seawolves just enough time to get back in the play.
Nor did it hurt the Seawolves that they received a much-needed infusion of scoring from freshmen.
After Kwas scored in tight on a power play 14 minutes into the game, Hubbs bagged his first college goal about three minutes later when he deflected a Chris Williams shot over the glove of Huskies goaltender Jamie Phillips (17 saves). That gave the Seawolves their first 2-0 first-period lead since opening night.
Hubbs’ goal came in his first game back after sitting out three games with mononucleosis.
“It’s nice,’’ Hubbs said of his first college goal, “because then you don’t have to think about it. But coming to a level like this, I’m not a player who is going to score a lot or get too frustrated if I don’t. But now I don’t have to think about it.’’
Gunderson and company made that 2-0 cushion stand until midway through the third period, when Tanner Kero beat Gunderson low to the stick side from the right circle on a power play. Other than that, though, Gunderson didn’t endure too much heavy work.
“He was in good position, tracking the puck nicely,’’ Thomas said. “He read the play well and was square to the puck and didn’t make it tough on himself.’’
Gunderson also contributed in other ways. Particularly on Michigan Tech’s first two power plays, when the Huskies dumped the puck around the boards, he went behind his net and easily played the puck to a teammate to initiate the process of getting it out of the zone.
Like back-checking, that’s not glamorous — just effective.
Still, Kero’s goal came with plenty of time left for the Huskies, who are 0-7-1 on the road, to work on scoring an equalizer.
But Dusyk’s goal with 97 seconds left snuffed that possibility. After UAA defenseman Quinn Sproule played the puck off the glass to get it out of his zone, Dusyk tracked it down in the neutral zone. His initial shot was blocked, but the rebound came back to him and he beat Phillips glove side. A roughing call against the Huskies 17 seconds later effectively sealed UAA’s win.
The contributions from freshmen — Hudson Friesen assisted on Kwas’ goal — were welcomed.
“We needed it,’’ Thomas said. “We were relying so much on our top guys – our biggest guys did get us going, with Kwas’ goal — that it was really time for the freshmen to step up.’’
They know it.
“Obviously, our top guys have been unbelievable,’’ Dusyk said. “But it’s not going to work for them every night. It needs to be a group effort.’’
Andrew Pettitt and Hayden Trupp also earned assists for the Seawolves.
Captain Matt Bailey and defenseman Austin Coldwell each fired four shots on goal, as did Michigan Tech’s Blake Pietila.
Michigan Tech’s Kero and Alex Petan, who assisted on his goal, each pushed their point streaks to five games.
Quinnipiac won 3-0 at Princeton on Friday, making the Bobcats 12-0-1 since they lost to UAA on opening night.
Also, Air Force tied visiting Denver 3-3, making the Falcons 7-1-1 since they lost to UAA on the second night of the season.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
First Period — 1, UAA, Kwas 4 (Pettitt, Friesen), 14:23 (pp); 2, UAA, Hubbs 1 (Williams, Trupp), 17:38. Penalties — Watson, MTU (tripping), 6:11; Hietala, MTU (interference), 13:58; Sproule, UAA (holding), 18:51.
Second Period — None. Penalties — Leask, UAA (holding), 1:51; Williams, UAA (cross-checking), 9:30.
Third Period — 3, MTU, Kero 3 (Hanna, Petan), 10:20 (pp); 4, UAA, Dusyk 1 (Sproule) Penalties — Petan, MTU (tripping), 3:41; Hubbs, UAA (tripping), 9:53; MTU bench minor, served by Furne (too many men), 12:24; Hietala, MTU (roughing), 18:40.
Shots on goal — MTU 9-6-8—23. UAA 11-2-7—20.
Power-play Opportunities — MTU 1 of 4. UAA 1 of 5.
Goalies — MTU, Phillips, 1-2-1 (20 shots-17 saves). UAA, Gunderson, 4-2-0 (23 shots-22 saves).
A — 2,333 (6,251). T — 2:18.
Referees — Justin Braun, Bobby Lukkason. Assistant referees — Travis Jackson, Brent Johnson.