Michigan Tech (9-6-3) enters the month of December trying to build upon an altogether successful November where they took home a record of 6-1-1. December is a short month for the Huskies, but it may prove to be the most important as they have two tough series with strong WCHA foes followed by the Great Lakes Invitational. It all starts with a series in Houghton against the league-leading Beavers of Bemidji State (11-4-1). This is a huge weekend in the scope of the WCHA because the Huskies have a chance to cut deep into the Beavers’ 8-point conference lead.
MTU enters this week riding high, having gone 3-0-1 up north, which is no easy task. They began the weekend in Fairbanks by surrendering the first goal in the mid-first period on Friday, but responded only 38 seconds later with the equalizer. The Huskies never trailed again for the rest of the weekend. It is clear where their strength lies right now: Since Angus Redmond began starting every game on October 28, MTU is 8-1-1, having surrendered more than two goals only once during that stretch. Their team defense has been extraordinary this month. Although their opponents have been relatively weak compared to the teams they played in October, the Huskies have played their schedule the best they possibly could. They have pretty much shut down these lesser opponents by limiting shots and scoring chances and found themselves a goalie they trust to clean up the rest.
If there is anything troubling to take away from last weekend’s sweep of the Nanooks, it is the reemergence of taking too many penalties. Fortunately for the Huskies, Alaska only scored once on the man advantage, and seemed generally unable to use their large ice to spread out MTU’s penalty kill to capitalize. Tech will have more trouble this week if they take 18 penalties in two games as they did in Fairbanks because they now face Bemidji State’s power play that stands at 6th in the nation.
Bemidji State will arrive in Houghton looking to pretend that last weekend never happened. The Beavers entered a home series against the winless Princeton Tigers and left having been inexplicably swept and taking a devastating hit to their pairwise with them, dropping from 3 to 15, and as THG's Alex Slepak noted in his poll analysis this week, dragging the rest of the WCHA down with them. BSU’s toughest task may not be Tech’s strong defense and home-ice advantage, but instead finding a way to overcome last weekend. On the bright side for the Beavers, they appear to have the tools to do so. Bemidji is the country’s most disciplined team and sport a top-ten power play and penalty kill. They are buoyed by the country’s number one defense and one of the nation’s top goaltenders in junior Michael Bitzer. BSU has had success finding the net as well, led by a trio of upperclassmen with six goals apiece: Phillip Marianaccio (F, Sr.), Brendan Harms (F, Sr.), and Gerry Fitzgerald (F, Jr.). Fear not, however, Huskies fans: the biggest question surrounding BSU this season was whether they were actually as good as their record suggested and last weekend’s results may have answered that question. Make no mistake, this is the strongest team that the Huskies have faced since playing Michigan in October. Still, MTU may be catching them at a very good time.
Keys to the Game
- Score the first goal and keep the lead. If I had a dollar for every time I have had a coach tell my team before a game that scoring the first goal is key, I would be able to afford college. As cliché as it is, I am bringing it up here because scoring early and staying ahead could take a fragile BSU psyche and shatter it. Beyond that, Tech is 8-1-2 when scoring the first goal and 1-5-1 when surrendering first (that one victory coming last weekend against Alaska when they immediately tied the game). The Beavers rode a wave of confidence to begin the year in stellar fashion, scoring first in 13 of 16 contests, but momentum can change in a flash and Tech has an opportunity to take care of business against the league-leader.
- Stay out of the box. I am willing to accept the argument that the reappearance of Tech’s penalty issue was a one week aberration coupled with refs that may have been slightly tilted in the home team’s favor. They got away with nine penalties per night against Alaska, but I highly doubt BSU will be as forgiving. This is an evenly-matched series that could be easily be decided by special teams.
- Stay in the moment. The Huskies need to be careful that they do not get ahead of themselves thinking about what picking up six points would do for them in the standings. Play one period at a time, take advantage of the home crowd, and depress the Beavers as early as possible. There does not appear to be a huge matchup advantage for either team. This should be a good battle.
Michigan Tech should be happy to be home after a long two weeks visiting the 49th State. Huskies fans are in for a treat this weekend for a battle between the two best teams in the conference. This series has serious postseason implications either in the WCHA or national picture. I honestly have no idea who is going to take the majority of points, but I do think at least one game makes its way to overtime. I’ll go with Tech 3-2 on Friday, and a 2-2 tie on Saturday with Bemidji taking the extra point in the shootout. Both games are at 7:07pm ET.