After Michigan Tech split with #6 ranked Minnesota State, the Old Dog thinks its time to step back and bat around what we saw in this Sunday-Monday series. With a 3-1 win Sunday and a 2-0 loss Monday, there’s plenty to chew on. Is the glass half empty or half full?
It’s Half Full
There was a full dogsled of things to like about this series. First and foremost, the Mavericks are the class of the WCHA and have been for several years. Any team that wants to assert themselves as a national power has to prove they can play with Mankato. While it was a struggle in many ways, the Huskies showed that they can, with the right strategy and effort, do just that.
Second, Blake Pietila was phenomenal in goal both nights. His other-worldly near-shutout (marred only by a last minute goal after MSU had pulled their goalie) in the 3-1 win was one of the finest games a Tech netminder has turned in for quite a while. He was also Tech’s best player on the ice in the loss on Monday. He was named WCHA Goaltender of the Week for his efforts. In doing that, he edged out his Mav counterpart, Dryden McKay—believed by many to be the top goalie in the country.
The Huskies also showed that special teams might be “special” this year. Husky penalty killers held the Mavs to a 1-for-9 weekend on the powerplay, and that tally included two 5 minute kills. At the same time, they went 2 for 10 themselves on the powerplay. That’s an 89% kill rate and 20% powerplay rate (for those of you who forgot all your math) and that’s a great showing against an excellent team.
Eric Gotz got his second powerplay goal of the year, and that’s an indication of better things to come from one of Tech’s top defenseman. Gotz continued his solid play on both ends of the ice, while freshman Brett Thorne was also prominent on the blueline. Thorne appears to be playing his angles well in his own end, making smart passes on the breakout, and willing to make shrewd but hard hits at the right time—very impressive for a freshman early in the season.
Brian Halonen returned to the lineup after missing the opening series against Lake State, and his impact was enormous. He got an empty-net powerplay goal in the final seconds on Sunday to seal the win for Tech, and he was back to his relentless power forward style. Keeping Halonen healthy will be important for Them Dogs as this anything-but-normal season unfolds.
Finally, while the offense disappeared at times (more about that in a second), we started to see the offensive force that the Old Dog thought we would enjoy watching this season. Tech controlled the play in the Minnesota State end for multiple shifts and the forechecking was strong. The first goal on Sunday, which came when Carson Bantle was dogging a Mav forward behind the goal, caused a giveaway that Logan Ganie was perfectly positioned to snag—and then snap past McKay for the crucial first goal of a tight game.
It’s Half Empty
It wasn’t all good news, as the Huskies revealed weaknesses that need to be addressed if they expect to be a WCHA contender this season.
High on the list is avoiding major penalties. Trenton Bliss got one Sunday near the end of the first period, and it included a game misconduct. Replays showed Bliss pulled up and did not deliver a vicious check, and that the MSU player probably collapsed headfirst a bit too easily, but the fact is that Bliss still pushed a player from behind in a vulnerable position close to the boards. On Monday, Brendan Datema leg-whipped the Mavs’ Jake Jaremko when Datema was in a bad position near Tech’s net. He didn’t get a game misconduct and it took a challenge from the MSU bench midway through the first period to get the penalty called. So, while you can say that there were “extenuating circumstances” in both calls, the five minute majors changed both games noticeably.
And that brings us to another issue. Prior to the majors on each night, play was back and forth, and Tech was able to overcome MSU’s powerful offensive prowess. While Tech killed both penalties, the effort seemed to take the steam out of the Huskies and the Mavs then took control. On Sunday, MSU had 35 shots over the last two periods to Tech’s 14 (and just four in the third period when Them Dogs were hanging on for dear life). That pattern held again Monday and gave the Mavs a huge shot advantage in the first two periods (33-9). The Huskies did bounce back in the final period in the second game, but McKay lived up to his pre-season plaudits and completed the shutout.
There were very long sequences after the majors in both games where Tech just couldn’t get control of the puck at all, cycles where MSU was able to change lines while keeping play in Tech’s end. This may be an issue with conditioning, but it was also due to the great depth on the Mav bench.
Conditioning also seemed to be an issue in the LSSU series, and this was a bit of a surprise as MSU had been hit by COVID-19 and couldn’t have had as much practice time as the Huskies. As assistant coach Dallas Steward noted, Tech’s only played four games so far, and “game conditioning” just isn’t the same as practice conditioning. Still, MSU was in an even worse position—but with depth, and undeniably better talent, the Mavs tilted the ice toward Blake Pietila for far too long in both games.
Another factor was Tech’s inability to finish on great chances. They had 2 clear breakaways in both games and did not pot any. Sure, McKay is a fine goalie, but in close games like these, a goal on any of the breakaways could have changed the game flow dramatically. When the WCHA conference games start in January, this skill will likely be critical because extra points in shootouts will mean much more than they do in non-conference games.
The Huskies generally looked good defending their own zone (even when MSU had the puck for long stretches, zone coverage rarely wavered), but the weakness of the bottom two defensemen was clear. This same pattern carried over from the LSSU series, and Tech tried to counter by splitting up the third pairing on Monday. However, all of the penalty killing upset that scheme. This occurred with two different third pairs in each game, so it’s not on any individual player. Nevertheless, WCHA foes will certainly exploit this when they have the last change at home if it continues.
Is the Glass Too Big?
There’s an old engineering joke that says the glass is neither half-empty or half full, but instead the glass was over-designed with too much capacity. Extending that analogy to the Huskies just doesn’t appeal to the Old Dog, because it suggests that MTU’s ambition to be a top-tier national program is just too great a reach. I don’t buy that.
But for me, at least, the glass is half full. Splitting with Mankato is a worthy accomplishment, and the weak points we saw in this series are things that can be corrected between now and January. That depends, in part, on Tech getting in enough games to fix those issues. Since Northern Michigan continues to have COVID problems and isn’t playing, that leaves a series at Bemidji next weekend as the only games between now and Christmas. It’s possible that Tech will find some more games before January, or that NMU will be able to compete by the week before Christmas, but that’s all there is on the schedule at the moment.
Once 2021 rolls in, the slate is packed with conference games and then things really matter. Tech seems to get stronger as February rolls around lately, so there’s plenty of hope for Husky Nation. Time is ticking, though, and there’s serious work to do in the next three weeks.