Series Preview: Michigan Tech vs. Northern Michigan (Home-and-Home)

Please join me in welcoming Nathaniel "Alaska" Brose to the Tech Hockey Guide writing staff. Nathaniel grew up in the Twin Cities, Minnesota area and Fairbanks, Alaska. He is currently a student at Villanova University, where he plays goalie on the club hockey team, but roots for the Huskies in DI since his brother is a Tech student. Nathaniel will be taking over the series previews from Tim, who will be shifting over to our recruiting desk. - Alex Slepak, Editor-in-Chief

Michigan Tech (1-5-2) returns to MacInnes Arena Friday night for the first half of a home-and-home series against rivals Northern Michigan (2-3-1). The Huskies are coming off of a disappointing weekend where they had the potential to earn at least a split, and possibly more, against a strong Michigan squad. After digging itself an early hole in the WCHA standings, MTU desperately needs to find four points this weekend.

Joel L'Esperance and Brent Baltus celebrate L'Esperance's power play goal against NMU net-minder Atte Tolvanen on Oct. 24, 2015 (Photo credit: Bob Gilreath)

Joel L'Esperance and Brent Baltus celebrate L'Esperance's power play goal against NMU net-minder Atte Tolvanen on Oct. 24, 2015 (Photo credit: Bob Gilreath)

Scouting Report

Northern Michigan has been steadily improving over the last few seasons, finishing only one game under .500 in 2015-16. This season, they started off with a signature win against a suddenly formidable Wisconsin team before losing the second game of that series and then getting swept by WCHA-leader Bemidji State. They then rebounded last weekend with a win and a tie on the road against Ferris State. The Wildcats' best player, sophomore goaltender Atte Tolvanen, has picked up where he left his strong rookie campaign with a solid start to the year. On the front end, NMU graduated their leading scorer, Darren Nowick (F), but returned the rest of their top point-getters. That offense has been wildly inconsistent, having scored more than four goals twice already, but have also being shut out twice.

Even with a solid season last year, Northern Michigan really struggled against the Huskies, with the season series finishing 3-1 in favor of Michigan Tech. In those three losses, the Wildcats were out-shot and never came close to winning by the end of the second period. Finding a way to bury this team early will be important for Head Coach Mel Pearson’s squad if they hope to achieve a sweep. They showed some flashes of elite play that is now expected, but both nights they suffered a backbreaking goal late in the third that cost them the chance to leave Ann Arbor with more than just one tie. Unfortunately, The Huskies were simply unable to stop Michigan’s potent special teams. The silver lining from the weekend is that they dominated for great portions of the game, especially during Saturday’s draw. Michigan Tech out-shot Michigan by a significant margin, 45-18.

Michigan Tech also appear to have made a smart decision in sliding forward versatile defenseman Chris Leibinger (Sr.), who scored again this weekend. Goaltending still remains the biggest issue for Coach Pearson, and I do not envy the decisions he will have to make on the back end. Neither goalie played particularly well against the Wolverines, so it seems likely that Coach Pearson will decide on their net-minder one game at a time in case one of them decides to take the job and run with it.

Keys to the Series

  1. Establish an early lead and build on it. Don’t let their respective records fool you, Michigan Tech is the better team this weekend. They have shown that they can compete with top teams when they can stay out of the box, which they have done since the first two weekends. They outplayed the ranked Wolverines for a large part of the weekend which should be something they can build upon. The Huskies need to play with a certain desperation this weekend and find a way to get to Tolvanen as early as possible. If he gets into a groove, goals and wins will be extremely difficult to find.
  2. The stars need to shine. Michigan Tech has had incredibly balanced scoring, with 15 players already with multiple points. Yet no one has more than two goals, and five of the top ten scorers are defensemen. The Huskies’ top forwards must step up and take over games. Balance is nice, but there needs to be a go-to player or line to really be a threat at this level. Coach Pearson has been mixing up lines the last few games, and that is likely to continue until he finds a combination that starts doing damage.
  3. Goaltending. This is a theme that cannot be ignored, because it has been an issue. For Michigan Tech to compete in any respect this season, either Devin Kero (So.) or Matt Wintjes (Sr.) has to improve drastically. Kero’s weekend was especially rough, starting off poorly when the first goal trickled five-hole, one that he will want back. To make matters worse, the game-winning shorthanded goal was created by Kero’s misplay behind the net. They both have the talent to lead this team, but there is so little room for error with the team’s slow start that someone has to step up immediately.

My Prediction

Michigan Tech only has one win, but they have had one of the hardest opening month schedules in the country. Northern Michigan is probably the weakest team they will have played up to this point. With Friday being the home game this weekend, I think that they take care of business and bring that confidence into the Berry Events Center on Saturday. The Huskies will sweep this weekend, winning 6-3 on Friday and 5-4 on Saturday. While the offense, especially the forwards, carry a huge possession and shots advantage, neither Kero or Wintjes plays well and the team’s biggest weakness continues to be in the spotlight.