Could you see that coming? The Old Dog certainly didn’t, as the Huskies traveled to Ferris State last weekend with mixed results. In the first game of the series, Tech struggled to a 2-2 tie in regulation, but pulled out an overtime victory with a big goal from Michael Karow. Saturday night, the Bulldogs and Huskies engaged in a 5-5 tie that was eventually decided for Tech as Logan Pietila scored in a sudden death shootout. An overtime-overtime win, if you will.
The combination of Tech getting four of six points and Minnesota State scooping up all six points against third place Bemidji State clinched the Central Collegiate Hockey Association championship and the MacNaughton Cup for the Mavericks, locked the Huskies into second place, and set up what will almost certainly be a first-round playoff matchup for Tech with seventh place FSU in two weeks.
Two Nights, Two Different Games
The first game was a surprising defensive struggle on the oddly shaped and undersized rink in Big Rapids. With shallow corners on both ends, slightly narrower and shorter total dimensions at Ewigleben Arena (not even Bulldog play-by-play man Harrison Watt is sure how to pronounce that) hockey sometimes resembles pinball as the puck seems to rocket around in odd and hard to predict ways.
The first period was marred by some strange officiating, which included a ten minute misconduct on Husky forward Arvid Caderoth for shooting the puck on goal after a late whistle which sounded just a split second before he released his shot. Both teams were shorthanded for long stretches, and there was even a rare regulation three-on-three as a result of all of the penalties called.
Nevertheless, Ryland Mosely grabbed an early lead for Them Dogs at the 6:08 mark with a shorthanded goal — only to see the Bulldogs tie it up less than 30 seconds later with a marker during the 3-on-3. Tristan Ashbrook staked the Huskies to another lead in the second period and FSU managed to tie it up in the third on a strange shot from behind the net that somehow bounced in off Tech goalie Blake Pietila. That set up Karow’s game winner in overtime.
The next evening, the game was very different with five goals scored in the first period alone. Ferris was controlling the play and opened the scoring, but Logan Pietila answered on a shot that eluded FSU goaltender Noah Giesbrecht. Trenton Bliss then made it 2-1 less than four minutes later. The Bulldogs then bagged two quick goals and took a 3-2 lead on a weak shot that eluded Blake Pietila, as well as one on another from-behind-the-net effort that deflected off Pietila. FSU had commanded most of the play, and it seemed like Tech, despite the two goals, was a bit lethargic for long stretches.
For the first time all season, Blake Pietila didn’t seem to have it in net, and coach Joe Shawhan replaced him with Mark Sinclair. Nevertheless, Ferris State added to their lead in the second on a defensive blunder and a routine shot that trickled by Sinclair, and for whatever reason, Tech seemed to be overwhelmed by the pace of play for much of the period.
Something happened during the intermission though, and the Huskies fired out in the final period with renewed energy and determination. While Tech peppered Giesbrecht, he held his ground until the 9:43 mark when Bliss found the back of the net on an odd deflection. Brian Halonen added his 20th of the season 33 seconds later to erase the FSU lead. The Bulldogs then retook the lead with a fluky goal that deflected off a player, floated in the air and just dropped behind Sinclair.
It was then the Huskies turn to show resolve, and Alec Broetzman fired in a rebound from a sharp angle to knot the score once again (it’s 5-5 at this point if you are having trouble keeping track) with just 2:44 left in regulation. A scoreless 5 minute overtime period followed, and shootout goals by Bliss and FSU’s Stepan Pokorny in the second round left it tied after the first three rounds. In the second sudden death round, Logan Pietila got the extra CCHA point for Tech with the winning shot.
As with so many things the Old Dog has seen from this season’s Husky squad, it remains difficult to understand how Them Dogs can play up to or down to any level of competition. Despite not showing well against Ferris State in this series, the Huskies hung on to their slot at #12 in the national Pairwise ranking and #14 in the national polls. (Ferris is 51st out of 59 teams in that same Pairwise ranking.)
Some of this comes from the way the NCAA counts overtime and shootout games. A game that is a regulation tie but ends in an overtime win counts as 55% of a win for the victor and 45% a loss (and the opposite for the loser). A shootout win, though, just counts as 50% of a win and a loss for both teams; the shootout advantage only matters in terms of conference points.
That’s not to say that Ferris is necessarily as weak as their ranking suggests. They have a very young team and have lost quite a few games by one goal as a result of miscues late in the game when the pressure is on — just the way Tech came from behind in the second game this past weekend.
But that alone doesn’t explain how a team that has an authentic claim to being an NCAA tournament team can fail to get at least one outright win on the road against FSU. Nor does it explain how the kind of same thing (regulation ties salvaged in overtime) happened twice against St. Thomas, the team ranked dead-last in the NCAA Pairwise scheme.
These close games against weak teams leave the Old Dog sighing as he sips his Two Hearted Ale while watching from Texas. There’s something lacking somewhere, and it’s hard to put your finger on it. At times, the Huskies can utterly control a game, even against the best competition. At other times, they seem almost disinterested. They have a group of seniors who can show great leadership, underclassmen who work like Dogs as they scramble to stay in the lineup, and yet can still play long stretches where they make careless (and pointless) drop passes, take foolish penalties and repeatedly give the puck away in their own end.
Look at the total record: the Huskies are listed with a 19-9-3 record. But take a deeper look. They have 17 outright wins and only 4 outright losses. They then have 1 final tie, 2 shootout wins, two overtime wins, and 5 overtime losses. You can sort that out plenty of different ways, but it does mean that ten of Tech’s 31 games have been tied at the end of regulation.
I’ll be blunt at this point: that’s way too many games to leave on the table for a team with the level of talent that the Huskies have — or perhaps seem to have. I’ll leave it to anyone reading my meanderings to decide which side of that balance to believe in.
There are only two games left in the regular season for MTU, and they will be played this weekend at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton against #1 ranked Minnesota State. These games mean nothing in the CCHA standings; the Mavericks have clinched yet another championship and Tech is locked into second place.
Still, they have a great deal of potential impact on the Pairwise ranking and Tech’s chances of getting into the NCAA tournament. The way that could spin out is complex, but losing both won’t help Tech, splitting the series will be beneficial, and sweeping would help a great deal.
A sweep and getting to the finals of the CCHA playoffs would virtually guarantee Tech a spot in the Big Skate, and (of course) winning the playoffs brings an automatic bid. Anything less than these two outcomes puts the Huskies somewhere on one side or the other of the NCAA bubble.
The bubble is an ominous place; it can burst at any time. If it does, the Old Dog will add one more giant sigh to a season that still has a great deal of promise.