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Mel Pearson turned down Michigan Tech's offer to be hockey coach in mid-April of 2011, still devastated from Michigan's overtime loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the national championship game.

A few days later, Pearson sat down and talked things over with his boss, Michigan coach Red Berenson, and then-athletic director Dave Brandon and decided to take the Tech job.

The move paid off for Pearson, who took over a terrible program — 4-30-4, including a 26-game winless streak before his arrival — and turned it into one of the top teams in the country.

Michigan Tech sits No. 5 in the national rankings with a 13-3 record in Pearson's fourth year in Houghton. His goal is to guide the Huskies to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association title and their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1981 — when he helped them reach the national semifinals as a senior.

"I don't know if we're the No. 1 team in the country, but I know we can play with any team in the country and have the chance to beat them," said Pearson, who will be taking the Huskies to Detroit to face Michigan in a Great Lakes Invitational semifinal at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Joe Louis Arena. Michigan State faces Ferris State in the other semifinal at 7.

Tech won its first GLI title since 1980 two years ago with a 4-0 win over Western Michigan. It lost to Western Michigan in last year's title game, 1-0 in overtime, in an outdoor game at Comerica Park.

Pearson believes Tech has a chance to earn another title bid, thanks to the strong goalkeeping of Jamie Phillips.

"Our biggest question mark at the start of the season has been our biggest strength," Pearson said. "Pheonix Copley, our goaltender, left for Washington after his sophomore season and Jamie Phillips stepped in and has been unbelievable. He's been really good from the start and our defense has played well in front of him.

"We had three freshmen have the opportunity to play on defense for us last year and they have really taken off this year. We're playing real well without the puck. The kids have bought in to what we're trying to do. Our PK (penalty killing) has been rock solid."

Phillips, a junior, is 13-3 with a 1.69 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. Tech has killed off 91.9 percent (68-of-74) of its opponents' power plays, ranking second nationally.

Pearson, an assistant coach under Berenson for 23 years, and his staff — including former Michigan star Billy Muckalt, who played on the Wolverines' national championship teams in 1996 and '98 — have recruited well.

"Billy's done a fabulous job," Pearson said. "We may not have high-end recruits like a Minnesota or Michigan, but we have a real solid core who play together and play well.

"Shane Hanna (sophomore defenseman) led our league in scoring for freshmen last year and Matt Roy, our freshman defenseman from Canton, has been phenomenal, and I think he's been under the radar.

"We also have four or five juniors playing well, guys like Tanner Kero, Blake Pietila, David Johnstone and Alex Petan. Tanner and Blake are our co-captains and they've done a great job of leading this group."

Kero has five goals and 18 points and Petan has eight goals and 15 points. Johnstone has three power-play goals.

So, how has Tech risen to become a top-five team in the college hockey world nearly halfway through the season?

"I think it all started with those two one-goal wins at Ferris State," Pearson said. (Tech swept the defending WCHA champion in Big Rapids Oct. 24-25, 1-0 and 2-1, killing all seven power-play chances while Phillips turned aside 67 of 68 shots.) "Ferris State was unbeaten at home in league play last year so it was a big deal. The kids gained some confidence from it.

"Then, Michigan came up here to play us and we were able to beat them twice. Michigan's going to be a heck of a team so that series was big, too, no doubt."

Tech also split with No. 7 Minnesota-Duluth in a non-conference series which will help its chances for earning an at-large NCAA bid.

"I knew this would be our best team and we'd have a chance to win the league title and that's what we're shooting for," Pearson said. "I like this group. We have everything we need. I also feel it's big to win our non-league games so that's why it was huge to beat Michigan (and Duluth). We want to make the NCAA Tournament.

"I know this is still early in the season, but I'm happy for the players and thrilled for the alumni and community. They've had some lean years here and Tech has such a rich tradition (national championships in 1962, '65, 1975), so we want to get this program back to where it once was."

He hopes the Huskies take a big step after finishing 14-19-7 last season (12-11-5 WCHA). Tech's last winning season was in 2006-07 (18-17-5).

Berenson left Houghton impressed with Tech after Michigan's 4-1, 6-2 losses earlier this month. Phillips stopped 54 of 57 shots and blanked the Wolverines on 13 power-play chances.

"I talked to Mel off and on in the summer and fall and he didn't know if his team was ready to turn the corner yet," said Berenson, who turned 75 earlier this month. "He didn't know about his goalkeeping since his goalie left early. This kid, Phillips, he didn't know how ready he was. It just takes one player to elevate your whole team, especially if he's your goalie.

"He (Pearson) has his team playing well. They are playing hard and with confidence. Their goals-against is incredible. We give up five goals and it takes them four games to give up five goals. And, it's not like we didn't get shots on them. They play a good system and he's kept them in some games and his team's kept him in some, too."

Berenson changed his lines soon after that series with Tech and the Wolverines responded by winning six of their last eight games, averaging five goals.

Still, those same lines won't be intact since several Wolverines, up to four, will not be in the lineup. They will be losing forwards JT Compher, Tyler Motte and freshman Dylan Larkin — the Red Wings' first-round draft pick — to Team USA for the IIHF World Junior Championships, along with defenseman Zach Werenski.

"We need better goalkeeping and better special teams play to beat them this time around, but that will be tough to do since a lot of those guys are on special teams," Berenson said.

Senior Zach Hyman has had a strong senior season for the Wolverines with seven goals and 17 points.

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/davidgoricki

GLI

When: Sunday-Monday

Where: Joe Louis Arena

TV: All games on FSD+

Tickets: olympiaentertainment.com or ticketmaster.com

Sunday's semifinals

Michigan (8-7-0) vs. Michigan Tech (13-3-0), 3:30 p.m.

Michigan State (6-9-1) vs. Ferris State (9-7-1), 7 p.m.

Monday's games

Third place: Semifinal losers, 3:30 p.m.

Championship: Semifinal winners, 7 p.m.

Notable: This is the 50th GLI. ... Michigan and Michigan State are both unranked in the USCHO.com poll and the USA Today poll. Michigan Tech is ranked fifth in both polls. ... Michigan and Michigan State will return to Joe Louis Arena for a neutral-site game on Jan. 30 and for the Big Ten tournament on March 19-21.

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