Michigan Tech (4-6-2) heads home from East Lansing searching for answers after a head-scratching loss on Friday night made only marginally better by a victory on Saturday. The Huskies are hoping that some home cooking and playing in front of a friendly crowd will finally turn around their season after they have spent the last few weeks treading water. While it is now clear that MTU has its goaltender, other issues and a difficult matchup this weekend in the form of Lake Superior State (6-2-0) should be a cause for concern for fans of the Black and Gold.
Early in the season, the Huskies were struggling to stay out of the box and to keep their opponents from scoring on the subsequent power plays. While the former issue has been quelled, the latter is Michigan Tech’s biggest issue. On Friday night, the Huskies took two minor penalties. The Spartans scored on both, including the game-tying and the game-winning goals. As expected, MTU outplayed Michigan State but the 13th-worst penalty kill in the entire country cost the Huskies yet again.
Now for the good news: Michigan Tech looked rightfully dominant on Saturday night and the score reflected that, as the Huskies triumphed 5-1. MTU scored a pair of power-play goals, the latter of which, scored by Shane Hanna (D, So.), was the climax of a beautiful stretch of hockey in the mid-second period. Yet again their scoring balance showed when, for the second straight weekend, the Huskies scored five goals with five different players. They also killed off all five penalties, although if you watched the game the penalty kill still did not look all that strong.
Lake Superior State is off to a hot start, feasting on bad teams to win their first five games before being handed their first loss in overtime against Alaska. This setback did not slow them, as last weekend they completed a nice split with Minnesota State by crushing the Mavericks on Friday 5-1 before taking a tough 2-1 loss on Saturday in a game with zero even-strength goals. Lake State is being carried by junior goaltender Gordon Defiel, who in his seven starts this year has yet to surrender more than 3 goals. In his third year as the full-time starter, the Stillwater, Minn. native has posted strong goals against and save percentage numbers even while backstopping mediocre-to-bad teams. Part of the credit should go to the Laker defense, which has held their opponents to 30 or fewer shots in each of Defiel’s starts this season. LSSU’s weak early-season schedule still leaves question marks as to the legitimacy of their success, but as Michigan Tech showed two years ago when they started 10-0-0, a hot start can propel a team for the entire year. The Lakers should be viewed as an elite team in the WCHA until they prove otherwise.
Keys to the Game
- Battle in the circles. Lake State leads the WCHA and is 7th in the nation in faceoffs at 55.3%. Tech is second in the WCHA and 9th in the nation at 54.3%. Michigan Tech uses this advantage to jumpstart their offense which is 4th in the country in shots on goal. Lake State is the best faceoff team they will have played so far this year, so it is worth paying attention to this part of the game to see who can gain an edge.
- Michigan Tech needs to play on Friday like they have on Saturday. Three weeks in a row, the Huskies’ best game has come on the second day. MTU simply no longer has room for error if they want to play meaningful hockey in March. This means playing six strong periods instead of having to salvage the series each weekend. The Huskies need to find consistency from game to game or they will not be able to take advantage of their relatively easy November schedule.
- Fix the penalty kill immediately. There is not a whole lot of surprise in this one. Head Coach Mel Pearson needs to look into every option and idea he can come up with, because frankly, it cannot get all that much worse. Although it is early and this is a small sample size, the top ten teams in penalty kill percentage this season are a combined 39-25-9. Elite teams usually have good systems and well run special teams, and we are seeing that already around the country. We know that the players, fans and coaches now expect the Huskies to be among the country’s elite teams, so this is one area they can fix in that pursuit.
It is getting increasingly harder for me to have a high level of confidence in this MTU squad. In the end, their lack of consistency has burned them (and me for picking them to sweep back to back weeks). Their strengths right now, goaltending and faceoffs, are the same strengths as LSSU’s, but the Lakers have been even better than the Huskies in both facets. Lake State has also been a model of consistency so far this season, even if it is fair to wonder how much of this success is owed to their cupcake October schedule. This week, I hope to be wrong in not believing in Michigan Tech: LSSU wins Friday 4-2 and the Huskies and Lakers tie on Saturday, 3-3. Puck drops both nights at 7:07 ET at MacInnes Arena.