What happened last weekend?
Needing a better effort against their Upper Peninsula rivals than the one they posted against the Alaska Nanooks, the Michigan Tech Huskies gave just that against the Northern Michigan Wildcats. On Friday, the Huskies potted three second period goals to help lift them to a 7-4 victory on home ice. Freshman Reid Sturos had his best offensive game of the season, scoring three times, including two of those three second period tallies. Saturday night, the Huskies got another goal from Sturos and a key goal from assistant captain Tanner Kero in the third to grab their first win in the Berry Events Center since 2010.
Team defense has fallen to a tie for 26th, is there cause for concern?
For most of the season, the Huskies’ overall defense had hovered around 15th-17th in the country. Suddenly, after a couple of rough weeks, it has fallen 10 spots. Normally, this would be a large cause for concern, especially as the Huskies prepare for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.
Instead, it makes more sense to take a deeper look at the defensive corps. It has become easy to forget that the Huskies have dressed three freshmen defensemen in Shane Hanna, Chris Leibinger, and Cliff Watson for all but one game this season. To be fair, they may have overachieved in the early season.
“They set such a high bar for themselves,” said assistant coach Damon Whitten. “They played at such a high level early on, that we are able to watch film and show them, ‘This is our expectation. If you can play this well against Notre Dame or Michigan or whoever it is, that’s the bar that you’ve set.’”
Each of the three youngsters brings something different to the team.
Hanna may be the most noticeable of the trio with his 18 assists, second only to co-captain Blake Pietila, and his 21 points. He is also a +3 on the season.
“A lot of what goes on with Shane is helping anchor and run that first power play unit,” said Whitten. “He brings a very dynamic offensive ability to our team and to our game. Where he’s undervalued is his defensive play. He’s got more defense ability and compete than anyone gives him credit for.”
Watson is Shane’s opposite, a sturdy, stay-at-home type who has just four assists on the season. He rarely gets beat one-on-one and is a +4 on the season.
“Cliff is maybe the opposite,” said Whitten. “He’s rock-solid defensively. He’s big, strong, and tough to play against. He and Riley [Sweeney] have played together almost all year and they have matched up against other teams’ top lines the majority of the season.”
Leibinger is a tantalizing mix of the other two. He has one goal and five points, and is even on the season, but it is his physical play that is often most noticeable.
“Chris maybe brings a mix of the two,” said Whitten. “Chris is a warrior out there. He’s not afraid to throw his body around. He’s not a big kid, he’s not a heavy kid, but he throws some of the biggest hits we’ve had all year.”
What makes Watson so special?
After notching tan assist and going -1 on Friday, Watson posted one of his best games on Saturday on the larger ice surface in Marquette, keeping the Wildcats’ forwards to the outside of the rink and rarely letting any of them beat him to the corner.
“Cliff’s strength is being a great defender,” said Whitten. “He knows what he is. He’s great at it. He’s got good mobility. He’s got good size. He’s got good strength. Those things are going to increase as he gets bigger, stronger, and older.”
A sixth-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks, Watson continues to improve in the areas of his game that his parent club would like him to.
“That’s his game, he’s a great defender,” said Whitten. “When San Jose drafted him, that’s what they saw. I think at the NHL level, that’s what he’ll be. He’s going to add some other elements to his game. He’s shown some flashes at different points of rushing the puck. He almost had his first goal the other night. He will add other elements, but he really has a great feel and read for the defensive side of the game.”
It’s not all about the freshmen
While the trio have all had great starts to their collegiate careers, both Hanna and Watson have had the opportunity to learn alongside upperclassmen who have been as influential to them as the coaches have been.
Hanna has played the majority of the season alongside co-captain Brad Stebner. The duo are a combined +9 on the season.
Watson has started several games alongside junior Riley Sweeney, and the duo are a combined +4 on the season.
“Riley gets a lot of credit for helping Cliff,” said Whitten. “He has been mentoring Cliff a little bit.”
Leibinger has not had quite the luck of the other two, as he has seen extended time with sophomore Walker Hyland, senior Daniel Sova and junior Jimmy Davis.
“Chris has not had as experienced a player to play with,” said Whitten. “But I think it’s a credit to our defensive corps. They took a lot of pride early on and for a long stretch of the season, we were a top-15 team in goals against and team defense.”
So, again, are there any concerns about the recent struggles?
Whitten has no uncertain terms for the team’s recent defensive play.
“Our concern as a staff is that l gotten away from that the last few weeks,” said Whitten. “We want to reign that in and tighten up going into this crunch time of the season.”
Whitten suggested that the necessary work has already begun despite the team’s week off.
“Our structure is not going to change much,” said Whitten. “We play a certain style, and we won’t vary much from that at this point. It’s attention to detail, box outs, taking away sticks in front of our net.”