Last time the Old Dog weighed in on Michigan Tech’s hockey fortunes, the Huskies had completed one third of their season and were closing in on Thanksgiving. Now, we’re at the halfway mark and Christmas is just around the corner.
What have Them Dogs accomplished so far, and what does the second half of the season look like? The Old Dog—as always— has some musings to offer you.
A Mixed Message Last Weekend
After a bye week, Tech travelled to Sault Ste. Marie this past weekend to battle the last place (and, frankly, underachieving) Lake State Lakers. On Friday, the Huskies came out flat, LSSU scraped together a couple of goals, added an empty netter and got a 3-0 shut-out win, which gave them three of their only seven points in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) standings. And, they’ve gotten five of those seven points in games against Tech.
But things were different on Saturday, as the Huskies were firing on cylinders in a 5-1 pasting of Seamore the Sea Duck’s minions. All in all, this gave Tech 25 points in the CCHA standings, good for a share of first place, tied with Bemidji State, although the Beavers have two games in hand.
Splitting with the last place Lakers was a bit like getting coal in your stocking, but at least the Huskies left the Soo with a better taste in their mouths with the Saturday triumph.
The First Half: Really, Really (Mostly) Good News
In my preseason assessment, I admitted to doubts about this team. They’d lost a ton of talent to graduation and transfers including the core of last season’s NCAA tournament team. I said that several upperclassmen would have to step up and be better than they were in the past and that Tech would need some freshmen to surprise us.
Frankly, I doubted that MTU would finish in the top half of the CCHA standings and earn home ice for the opening round of the conference playoffs.
I was wrong. And I might turn out to have been very, very wrong. Well, at least about where the Huskies might finish in the CCHA.
The good news is that more guys than I would have believed possible have been far better than I thought they would be. And that includes several freshmen and sophomores. However, the good news-bad news part of that is that younger defenders have played much more than they might have because Tech has had a tough run of injuries, a run that continues.
Most of those injuries have been to defensemen. Captain and stalwart Brett Thorne has missed five games, Jed Pietila has missed four, Trevor Russel has been out for five, Chris Lipe has been missing for seven games (Lipe and Russell are still injured), and super senior Ryan O’Connell has had to sit three times due to injury. These five players are the core of Tech’s defense, and yet the Huskies are currently fifth in the nation in goals against per game.
Of course, much of the credit is owed to goaltender Blake Pietila, Jed’s cousin, who’s smoking along with a 1.98 goals against average and a 92.8% save percentage. But praise is also due to true freshman Evan Orr and two forwards who have never played defense before this year, Jake Crespi and redshirt freshman Alex Nordstrom.
Up front, the contributions have been balanced, with Ryland Mosley leading the way with nine goals, including three shorthanded goals and four game-winning goals. Both these stats are tied for the #1 spot on the NCAA DI scoring leaders list. Kyle Kukkonen, an Anaheim Ducks draft pick and a true freshman, has seven markers and junior transfer Jack Works has five.
All in all, the Huskies are 11-5-3, with one of the losses in overtime. Very few pundits, including the Old Dog, thought that Tech would be anywhere close to the top of the CCHA at the halfway point. Even coach Joe Shawhan admitted he didn’t think Tech would win many games this year.
Up next is the revitalized Great Lakes Invitational, being played for the first time at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids on December 27th and 28th. The first trial for Tech is Western Michigan on Tuesday at 3:30 EST. On Wednesday, the Huskies will face the winner or loser of the Ferris State-Michigan State game. These are really big games for Tech in the always-important Pairwise rankings and getting two wins will be a huge step forward.
Then Tech heads to Arizona State to play in the Desert Classic in Tempe. ASU, Boston University and Air Force round out the field. Again, these are critical games for the Pairwise.
After the holiday tournaments, Them Dogs will have a dozen games left in the CCHA before starting the playoffs. The schedule will be a severe test, and there will be no easy games in a conference where any team can—and often has—beaten any other team no matter where they are in the standings.
What Do the Huskies Want from Santa?
Now that you have the background, what can the Huskies be asking for from Santa Claus this year? They have not been naughty and should be on the “good boys and girls” list, so they are (the Old Dog hopes) in line for some nice presents.
The very first gift they will want is good health. They lost two promising freshmen (Kasper Vaharautio and Oliver Bezick) for the season before the first game, and I’ve already listed all of the defensemen who’ve been injured. Some of the forwards have missed games, too, so it would be just peachy if Saint Nick can bring a full roster to this team sooner rather than later.
The other thing that Santa can deliver to Shawhan and his crew is some Road Warrior magic. They have to play both Bemidji State and Minnesota State on the road in February, and every point will be near and dear in the CCHA as the season winds up. Getting points—or even sweeps—in these series could be the key to bringing the MacNaughton Cup for the CCHA regular season championship back home to Houghton.
The final thing I suggest as gifts for the Huskies is an explosion on offense, particularly for the senior forwards. While Logan Pietila (Blake’s twin brother, just for those of you who need a program for the Pietila clan) and Parker Saretsky have been playing well, if these guys—plus Tristan Ashbrook, Logan Ganie, and David Jankowski could get hot, there’s no telling how good this team could be.
Truly, Santa, that’s not a very long list and I think the Huskies have earned all of these gifts. Of course, nothing comes to you in DI college hockey these days unless you work hard in practice and play every shift like it’s your final time on the ice in your career.
If the Huskies supply the grit and sweat, can you bring them these gifts? Please?