It's the final weekend of the WCHA season and the league has once again chosen to have the season end with rivalry match ups. That means one thing for the Huskies, a home-and-home series with their biggest rival, Northern Michigan.
As if these games need anything extra, they're hugely important to both teams this year. The Wildcats need to earn at least as many points as Ferris State this weekend to guarantee themselves the fourth and final home ice spot and the Huskies need to score two more points than Minnesota State and at least as many points a Bowling Green to earn the #1 seed. Not to mention, a share of the MacNaughton Cup for the first time since George Lyle lead Michigan Tech to the 1976 WCHA Title and their third straight national championship match-up with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Over the years, this rivalry has created some amazing results, even when one team was struggling near the bottom of their respective conference. Mitch's Misfits exists today because many of it's founders became diehard fans all because of a crazy game back in October 2003 that saw Chris Conner, Brandon Schwartz, Cam Ellsworth and especially Colin Murphy recover from 6-3 deficit with three goals in final 2:05 of regulation and the game-winner just over halfway through overtime. This website probably wouldn't be here either, if it wasn't for that game.
The Huskies earned another crazy comeback in October 2006 by scoring two goals in the third period, the first by Tyler Skworchinski and the game winner by Justin St. Louis with just three seconds left in the period to give the MTU a 2-1 victory. Those two games have played a huge part in building a generation of Michigan Tech fans despite number of really bad seasons between the late 90s and the start of Mel Pearson's reign as head coach.
Despite a better overall record since he took over, and finishing ahead of NMU every season since the Wildcats rejoined the WCHA, Coach Pearson hasn't dominated this series, going 7-6-1 in his five seasons. Granted he hasn't lost the season series since his first season, where his Huskies were swept (in just two games), but his record and the aforementioned crazy results show that records don't mean anything and anyone can win in this match up on any given night.
It doesn't even seem worth it to discuss stats this weekend and just get right into the three keys.
Three Keys to the Series:
- Keep emotions under control. Last week the Huskies got into penalty trouble and paid for it with one of their worst performances on the penalty kill all season allowing three power-play goals over the weekend. Staying out the box and keeping senior night/MacNaughton Cup emotions under control will be essential to the Huskies success.
- Since neither team allows much scoring (NMU - 2.31 GAA/MTU - 2.08 GAA), and both are significantly better when scoring first (NMU +0.1250 W%/MTU +0.1797 W%) and around 0.500 when not scoring first, it's clear that the first goal will be a catalyst for victory. Although, as history shows, this series is known for some amazing comebacks.
- Much the same as the first goal, finding a way to score on two of the best goalies in the WCHA will be difficult this weekend. Atle Tolvanen (G, Fr. - NMU) leads the WCHA in save percentage (0.934) while Jamie Phillips sits sixth, with a respectable save percentage of his own (0.923). Scoring at all will come at a premium this weekend and the Huskies will have to find a way to break through.
This series couldn't have more on the line, so a letdown really shouldn't be a problem; both teams should be focused on the game at hand. There is little doubt that the rinks should be packed, even with Spring Break starting this weekend for the students. A rocking atmosphere including senior night festivities in each building only adds to the energy surrounding this weekend. The Huskies would like nothing more than to be conference champions and prevent their arch rivals from hosting a playoff series and Northern Michigan gets the chance to play spoiler while wrapping up the ability to stay in Marquette for the WCHA first round.
My heart weighs heavily on this series. I want so badly for Michigan Tech, especially this year's seniors, to be able to show that the Huskies have taken the next step in restoring the glory of the program by hoisting the MacNaughton Cup this season. I feel compelled to call for the series sweep and a split for Minnesota State and Bemidji State. Despite my better judgement on the difficulty of sweeping this rivalry series, that's just what I'm going to do.
Huskies win in Houghton 4-2 and follow it up with a gutsy 2-1 victory in Marquette and Big Jim's trophy makes a triumphant trip home to the Copper Country as the #1-seed Huskies host their first-round playoff series.
With senior night this Friday, thank you to this year's seniors. Alex Petan, Malcolm Gould, C.J. Eick and Jamie Phillips have played in a ton of games and really grown as players. They've all been big contributors throughout their four years at Tech. Max Vallis was a favorite of former assistant Billy Muckalt, and I can see why he drafted him for his junior team back in the day. He's waited his turn and done nothing but earn more and more ice time as this season. Jimmy Davis and Walker Hyland have been great leaders because from afar, they've done nothing but whatever has asked of them and I haven't heard any complaints about playing time, despite seeing their roles reduced year after year as the depth on the roster has improved over the last four years.
We're so lucky that all of these men chose to play for Michigan Tech and decided to stay for their entire college career. They should be very proud that they were able to leave this program in better shape than they found it and they've set the bar very high for the next class. I know the season isn't over yet, but I felt it needed to be said. Hopefully they can continue to build on what they've done and help this team get farther than they've gone since the 1970s. Only time will tell just where this class and this season will rank in Michigan Tech history, but like Coach Pearson has said all year, "I like this team!"