I don’t believe anyone saw this coming. I certainly didn’t, and I know that Joe Shawhan didn’t imagine it either. What is “this?” It’s the Huskies’ elevated perch in the Pairwise Rankings and second place in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), only one point behind Minnesota State with just four games left to play.
Back in September, many of us who follow Michigan Tech’s hockey fortunes were bracing for a down year. After last season’s NCAA tournament team and the loss of 10 front line players, the 2022-23 season looked like a season to rebuild.
But, it’s been anything but a rebuild. The Huskies are now 20-7-4 overall, one of only six teams in Division I with 20 wins, and a CCHA record of 13-5-4. They’re ranked 10th in the Pairwise and are closing in on securing a berth in the NCAA tournament once again, even if they don’t win the CCHA playoffs.
How did Them Dogs get here?
Early Season: Slow Start but Great Non-Conference Wins
As expected, October was a bit of a bumpy ride for the Huskies. They opened with a 2-1 non-conference loss at Ferris State and followed up with a sweep of a very good Alaska team in Fairbanks. Bemidji State dominated the Huskies in Houghton in one game and Tech dropped a shootout loss to the Beavers in the next contest. They finished the month with a non-conference sweep of St. Lawrence, also at home.
Tech then got hot in November, winning five, tying two, and losing just once. But this spurt wasn’t the smoothest ride, as the Huskies suffered quite a few injuries which was reviewed in a previous Old Dog column.
That led to a so-so December. Tech split with Northern and then split with Lake Superior State, and both losses were rather disappointing efforts. After Christmas, the Huskies looked like they might have hit rock bottom when they were bombed by Western Michigan 8-1 in the opening round of the Great Lakes Invitational (GLI) Tournament. Truthfully, the Huskies looked somewhere between disinterested and sleep walking in that game, and I was starting to think that this was the end of a decent run for a team that few thought would be much above .500 over the entire season.
Turning The Corner
Then, something remarkable happened. The Huskies topped a revitalized Michigan State team in the second GLI game, winning in overtime 3-2.
Since then, they’ve been on a tear. They traveled to Phoenix and won Arizona State’s Desert Classic tournament, beating the Sun Devils in the opener and besting #3 Boston University for the championship. Since returning from the warmth of the southwest, they’ve gone 6-1-1 in critical CCHA games. Goaltender Blake Pietila is looking more like a Mike Richter Trophy winner every week. The defense has been extremely stingy, the penalty kill has been almost invincible, and there’s been timely scoring. Only the powerplay has been weak.
But The Glass Isn’t Completely Full
The Old Dog has been a Husky fan for more than 55 years, and I’ve learned not to get too excited because bad news can pop up at any time. In those 11 games since the poor showing against Western Michigan, Tech has won 4 games by one goal, 3 games by two goals—but all with empty-net markers in each so they were effectively one goal wins—one game by three goals but with 2 empty net goals (another one goal kind of win), another by three goals, a single one goal loss, and a tie in which they lost the extra point in a shootout after giving up a late goal when Ferris State had pulled their goalie.
So, in those 11 games, they’ve had only one game that wasn’t decided by one goal when you factor in Tech goals scored when the other guys had their goal keeper pulled at the end of the game. That’s a razor thin difference between a great result and a very mediocre record.
A great deal of this has to do with goaltender Blake Pietila. Them Dogs are in every game because his play has virtually guaranteed at least a chance at victory every night, and they’ve found enough offense to get the lead and hold onto it in all but two games.
There have been quite a few other heroes too, including Brett Thorne logging Niklas Lidström-like minutes on defense, and freshmen playing like upper classmen, including Kyle Kukkonen and Evan Orr. It’s just been a great overall team effort with contributions coming from almost every player who dresses for a game. I could probably point out heroics for nearly every name that’s shown up on the score sheet at one time or another.
That’s part of what has made this season so special in the Old Dog’s view. It’s a total team machine, rolling four lines and three defensive pairs, and even the extra skater literally every night. That’s a combination that can win when the pressure is on and games are tight, and that’s what the Huskies have been doing.
But watching these games hasn’t done much for the Old Dog’s digestion. I’m holding my breath in every third period right down to the final buzzer, and sometimes beyond.
Just Four Games Left
There are only four games left for Tech before the CCHA playoffs begin. This Friday and Saturday, which is Winter Carnival weekend in Houghton, Bowling Green will come to Houghton for a pair of games. The Huskies then get a weekend off and end the regular season with a trip to Mankato to square off with Minnesota State.
Without going into every scenario, this is about the most intense ending to the season that anyone could imagine, and the CCHA standings show you why. All teams will play 26 games, and here are the current point totals (3 points for a win, 2 points for an overtime or shootout win, and one point for an overtime or shootout loss):
You can dream up an unlimited number of scenarios for what the totals will be when all the games are over on February 25. The Huskies could win the MacNaughton Cup as regular season champ and get home ice in the playoffs until they lose or win the Mason Cup, awarded to the playoff winner. They could finish second or third and get home ice in the first and possibly the second round of the playoffs. And the potential playoff seedings are just too complicated to even contemplate right now. The same is true for the Pairwise and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
As for the actual outcome, it’s easy if the Huskies remember just one thing: Just win, baby. Help the Old Dog breathe freely and digest his mush.
Mike Anleitner is a 1972 Michigan Tech grad, and he was in the first class of what has become the Scientific & Technical Communications program. He also has an engineering degree from Wayne State and an MBA from Michigan-Ross. He spent forty seven years in various manufacturing and engineering positions, and is currently a semi-retired freelance engineer. He lives during the fall and winter with his wife of 49 years Carol–also a ’72 Tech grad–in Addison, TX, a Dallas suburb with more restaurants per capita than any other municipality in the US. During the summer, Mike and Carol reside in Elmira, MI and avoid the Texas heat.