This is making the Old Dog want another Two Hearted Ale. Or another two, particularly when Mrs. Dog and I are cooped up inside all the time, trying to avoid the COVID-19 heebie-jeebies.
For the second week in a row, the Huskies played really well in one game and less-than-admirably in another. Against Bemidji State on Saturday, Tech didn’t start well, but managed to end the first period tied with the Beavers at 1-1. However, thanks (thanks??) to a miserable 7 minute spell at the start of the second period, the Huskies got spanked 6-3 Saturday in the series opener.
After Bemidji’s four goal outburst in that stretch, the game was all but over. The Huskies did reclaim some of their mojo, but it was obvious that the Beavers had fallen back into a defensive posture and weren’t going to continue to forecheck the way they had earlier in the game.
Then, after a shaky 12 minutes to start the second game on Sunday when BSU again dictated the pace with frenetic forechecking, the Huskies took control of the contest and were shutout winners with a 3-0 victory against the same team that made them look bad less than 24 hours before.
Half Good, Half Not So Good?
Last week, after splitting with Minnesota State—in a similar up and down manner—the Old Dog asked whether the glass was half full or half empty for this year’s edition of Husky Hockey. I still don’t think we know the answer to that question yet.
Bear in mind, these opponents are two of the WCHA’s best teams. Everyone knows Mankato is a national power, and the Beavers had only one newcomer on the ice this past weekend. The rest of the BSU lineup were all back from last year’s team which pressed Minnesota State right to the end before the pandemic wiped out the remainder of the season.
Let’s be clear—Tech got two hard fought wins against high quality opponents. In the process, goaltender Blake Pietila won two WCHA Player of the Week awards (Rookie last week, Goaltender this week), and the Husky offense, which hadn’t gotten out of low gear against Lake State in their first two games, has started to rumble to life. And, with the exception of that BSU mini-avalanche, Tech’s defense has been solid even when pressured. That all bodes well for January when games start to count in the WCHA standings.
The part that troubles me is that the Lakers, Mavericks and Beavers were able to make the Huskies look bad for long periods in all six games. When that was happening, Them Dogs could not get control of the puck and were unable to clear their own zone. This wasn’t just 20 to 30 second events, but sequences of 2 minutes or more. Pietila’s goaltending (and some from Mark Sinclair against LSSU) kept these onslaughts in check, but it this has to be concerning.
Worse, when this was happening, Tech was being bottled up and playing directly into the tactics that each of these three teams have used again and again over the past few years against the Huskies. The forechecking system each team uses isn’t a surprise, but it keeps working.
That makes a lot of us armchair coaches wonder what’s going on. Are the coaches unaware of this? Or are the players not executing what they’ve been coached to do? Or is it a combination of both factors?
On the Joe Shawhan hour this past Monday, Shawhan attributed this to a lack of “culture” in the Tech locker room. With Shawhan’s folksy Yooper ways, that kind of discussion can be a bit opaque at times, but what he seems to mean is that not all the players are fully committed to the system the coaches have devised. He’s also clear that he expects the more experienced players to help push that along, and not leave all of the execution of that system up to the coaches. That suggests he’s attributing the ugly play to both the coaches and the players.
From what I’ve seen, though, I think there’s a bit more on the coaches than on the players. I do think there have been periods where the level of effort and competitive drive that the players have exhibited is sub-par. But I also sense that the players get frustrated when they try to use the system that they’ve been taught and find it doesn’t work very well.
When that happens, play spirals into these long desperate defensive cycles that Tech has fallen into in every game so far. In those situations, I’ll suggest it’s time for the coaches to step in and make adjustments. For example, if the breakout along the boards is being overpowered (the way BSU did Saturday), moving it out the same way over and over again needs to change.
In simpler terms, I just don’t see the Huskies as the type of team that can consistently force their will on good teams by outexecuting their foes. Mankato and Bemidji are too talented for that, and coach Damon Whitten at LSSU has consistently shown that he knows how to adjust to Shawhan’s schemes because they are predictable.
After taking all of this into account, I think the Huskies—both players and coaches—are sometimes just a bit too stubborn for their own good. More effort from the players and a bit more flexibility from the coaches might unlock the real potential that many fans (and the Old Dog) think this year’s roster promises.
Just Two More Games Before Every Game Matters
With this pandemic-forced schedule, the Huskies have just two more games before the holiday break, and then conference games start on New Year’s Day.
Those games are non-conference clashes with Northern Michigan, and they are likely to be typically intense. NMU hasn’t played yet this season due to coronavirus issues, and they’ll have their first game this Wednesday with Ferris State.
When the Huskies and Wildcats square off in a home-and-home format Friday and Saturday, we’ll have a chance to see if Tech can get a few more of the pieces they need to fall in place. After that, Alabama-Huntsville will come to Houghton and, on January 1, the slate is clean and WCHA conference games will be huge. With only 14 conference games currently on the schedule (four were wiped out when Alaska opted out of play this year and Alaska-Anchorage folded their program), every game will be extremely important.
A Note about Joe Shawhan
After the first game of MSU series, Shawhan was notably absent from his normal post-game interview, which assistant Dallas Steward handled. Chris Brooks and Steward were behind the bench in the second game, and Shawhan was not. In addition, Steward filled in for Shawhan on the Joe Shawhan hour, while Brooks also was the public face of the Huskies after the first game against BSU. The brief report received during Steward’s day on the Shawhan show simply said that Shawhan was under the weather.
This led to a number of fans scratching their heads and, inevitably some rumors floated around.
During Sunday’s post-game interview, Shawhan explained that he had suffered from heart palpitations, which caused him to be hospitalized for observation until Tuesday . According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, a racing heart that continues is usually harmless, but, of course, may be a sign of something much more serious.
Again, using Mayo’s guidelines, the most common cause of this is a pattern of “strong emotional responses, such as stress, anxiety or panic attacks.” We can only imagine how Shawhan may have felt after the first game against MSU—specifically in the midst of what has been discussed in this article about staff and player interactions.
As someone who’s had palpitations that required hospital visits, and also had a heart attack more than a decade ago, I can sympathize with Coach Shawhan. I wish him well and sincerely hope that he’s able to avoid more serious cardiac problems in the future.