The MacNaughton Cup Comes Home!
For the first time since the 1975-76 season, Michigan Tech earned first place in the WCHA and a share of the MacNaughton Cup. MTU finished the season at 39 points, tied with Minnesota State. With tiebreakers over the Mavericks, Tech clinched the first seed in the WCHA playoffs and will host the University of Alaska in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
The seedings for the WCHA playoffs were up in the air until Saturday night. Eight of 10 WCHA teams had something to play for in the last game of the season. Only Alabama-Huntsville (#10) and Bowling Green (#3) knew their playoff seeds before puck drop on Saturday. It wasn't until the pieces started to fall late Saturday that the WCHA playoff picture started to take shape. Since the top and the bottom of the league were both still in flux, MTU could have been hosting Bemidji, Lake State, Alaska or Alaska-Anchorage until the results started coming in. In fact, the Huskies wouldn't know their first round opponent would be Alaska until that game wrapped up Sunday morning eastern time. No doubt members of the Huskies organization were staying up late to see the outcome of the game in Fairbanks.
Rivaly aside, this past weekend had a lot on the line for both MTU and NMU in the WCHA standings. The game got off to a fast start in Houghton Friday night. The Michigan Tech Hockey Intro Video always gets the John MacInnes Student Ice Arena loud and excited, and early offensive pressure from the Huskies only built on that excitement.
As Coach Pearson would later comment, "We weren't great with the puck in the first period and a half," but the Black and Gold would come back through the back half of the game to dominate the offensive ice. The Huskies made some poor passes on the attack early and lost some good opportunities while trying to make fast breaks into the offensive zone in an attempt to open up scoring opportunities in transition. That said, the energy in the game became clear as the first MTU shot hit Mathias Dahlström (G, Sr. - NMU) so hard that the sound of the impact carried up to the press box.
Alex Petan (F, Sr. - MTU) scored the first of four Tech goals just 4:30 into the 1st off of assists from Brent Baltus (F, Jr. - MTU) and Jake Lucchini (F, Fr - MTU). Lucchini would have four points on the weekend (2PPG, 2A) and make a case for himself as a contender for Rookie of the Week (that honor, however, was given to Stephen Baylis (F, Fr - BGSU)). In his postgame interview on Friday night, Coach Pearson said of Lucchini that he "has a great shot. We see it every day in practice."
A few minutes after Petan's goal, a 10 minute game misconduct checking from behind penalty committed by Darren Nowick (F, Sr. - NMU) removed Nowick from the game, the first and second of eight penalties for the Wildcats that would add up to 27 minutes by the end of the night. Nowick is the 2015-2016 Wildcats leading scorer, and was removed for the nearly 50 minutes remaining. While that gave Tech some early power play pressure, the Huskies failed to capitalize on the extended PP and ultimately went 1/6 with the man advantage.
The third goal for the Black and Gold was a real beauty. A 4-on-4 play straight from an offensive zone draw led to a slapshot from the left point by Shane Hannah (D, Jr. - MTU). Los Angeles Kings draft pick Matt Roy (D, So. - MTU) tipped the puck right into the net. The goal was highlight film material for both skaters.
The strong performance of the Huskies seemed to get in the heads of the Wildcat players, who responded with chippiness. Northen Michigan had nearly three times as many penalty minutes as Tech (8 penalties for 27 minutes to MTU's 5 for 10) and the edginess came through in numerous scuffles after the whistle. At one point, NMU's Shane Sooth (F, Jr. NMU) even pressed his helmet into the stomach of Joel L'Esperance (F, So. - MTU) in the faceoff circle, an image that perfectly captured the essence of the rivalry weekend attitude.
Jamie Phillips (G, Sr - MTU) would solidify the shutout for his last regular season home game. Following the game, Phillips reflected, "My first college start ever was against Northern and my first regular-season home game was a shutout, so to have a shutout in my last game against Northern is just the icing on the cake."
Going into the final game of the season, the team knew that NMU at home would be tough. "(We) gotta work hard. Big building; big ice," Lucchini said in reference to the Olympic-sized sheet of ice at the Berry Events Center. The team was well prepared for the game. "Don't change the game plan," Jamie Phillips said before the game. "I just try to make the saves."
Tyler Heinonen put the first goal in the net for the Huskies on the power play. The goal started on a nice pass across the net from L'Esperance to tip it in past an over-committed Dahlström on the stick side. Huskies fans were audible even on the Pasty.net audio feed. "I love the fans in the background, "Pearson said with a laugh on the March 7th, 2016 edition of The Mel Pearson Show. "They put our fans all over the place to dissipate a little bit, but you still hear the fans." Heinonen ended his junior-year regular-season campaign with 15 goals and 51 career points.
The second goal received even more boos from the NMU fanbase. "I love it, I love it," Coach Pearson said jokingly when replaying the goal on The Mel Pearson Show. The MTU cheers were at least as loud as the boos from Wildcats fans, a credit to the number of Huskies fans who traveled to Marquette.
Dahlström was pulled after the fourth MTU goal of the night. Once again, the "Max Vallis Show" was on when a rebound from a wrap-around attempt was tipped in by the surging senior. Vallis has scored 7 of his 22 career points since the beginning of Winter Carnival. Atte Tolvanen (G, Fr - NMU) skated in to finished the game for Northern.
Even with the 4-1 lead, Tech put some shots on Tolvanen so hard he probably needed a little extra Advil to counteract the peppering of his mask. Alex Petan put the final nail in the coffin on a straight snipe with only four seconds left in the 3rd while MTU had a 5-on-3 man advantage. With that goal, Petan won the 2015-2016 WCHA goal score title with 17 goals.
Like Friday's game, Saturday brought some chippiness from the Wildcats. The Wildcats had another 8 penalties for 16 minutes compared to Tech's 5 for 10. Big hits on Sturos and on L'Esperance after the whistle, as well as couple elbowing penalties were part of the physicality brought on by a rivalry game at the end of the season.
Scuffles broke out on more than one occasion. While Tech was on the PK during the Vallis cross checking penalty, punches flew when Phillips covered up the puck, but the officials let the teams play through that scuffle. A fight broke out after the final whistle of the season, with roughing minors being handed out on both sides. The penalties should not cause the players disqualification next weekend in the playoffs.
THG Three Stars of the Weekend
- Jake Lucchini (2PPG, 2A, GWG, 19 for 25 on Faceoffs)
- Alex Petan (1G, 2A, GWG)
- Jamie Phillips (2W, 1 SO, 98.0SV%)
Honorable Mention: Mike Neville for his numerous blocked shots in the first game of the series. He put his body in front of the puck 5 times on Friday, including a vicious shot that appeared to make contact below the belt, to lead the game in that category (he also recorded one block on Saturday).
MTU in the Rankings
Tech moved up this weekend in the nation Pairwise rankings to #14. That may or may not be good enough for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, but the easiest way to make it in is to keep winning. MTU remained stationary in the USCHO.com Division 1 Men's Poll as well as the USA Today/USA Hockey Poll.
As stated above, Tech moved up to 1st in the WCHA Standings in the final night of the regular season to win the MacNaughton Cup.
WCHA Wrap Up
#7 Lake Superior State University at #4 Ferris State University
Friday: 1-3, Satuday: 3-2
Ferris State, trying to fend off Bemidji state and leapfrog Northern Michigan for the final home ice slot, ran into a hot LSSU team. LSSU has now won 9 of 16 possible points since the Winter Carnival series at MTU. Lake State was looking to sweep Ferris in order to tie Bemidji in points, where LSSU would have tiebreakers for 6th. The Bulldogs quenched Lake State's hopes by putting up 88 shots on the weekend. LSSU allowed 1200 shots on their goaltenders in the 2015-2016 regular season campaign.
Good News for Huskies Fans: Lake Superior is freshman heavy, and has grown significantly this season. The Lakers have taken 9 of 16 points since visiting Houghton for Winter Carnival. Is it likely LSSU can upset Minnesota State in the first round? Not on paper, but they are not the same team which only scored on a penalty shot against Tech.
Bad News for Huskies Fans: The Ferris State arena in Big Rapids, MI gives a definite home ice advantage against visiting NMU next weekend. Tech would prefer FSU not make the WCHA Final Five to avoid any FSU home ice presence in nearby Grand Rapids, MI.
#6 Bemidji State University at #2 Minnesota State University
Friday: 1-6, Saturday: 1-0
It wouldn't have been hard to imagine a deal between Bemidji State and Michigan Tech this weekend: both teams needed the other to win for their own seeding. Tech did their part, and Bemidji pulled through for the Huskies on Saturday. Michael Bitzer (G, So. - BSU) saw 11 shots on Friday before being pulled, but stopped all 38 on Saturday. Teddy Blueger (F, Sr. - MSU) was one of the reasons Bitzer was pulled Friday, accumulating three points in the game and solidifying the WCHA points title for 2015-2016 (10G, 23A). Alex Petan trailed Blueger with 30 total points.
Good News for Huskies Fans: BSU held up their end of the deal and MTU won their first share of the MacNaughton Cup since 1976. Further, since MTU has the tiebreakers over MSU, the BSU win gave Tech the first overall WCHA seed.
Bad News for Huskies Fans: The switch of positioning means Tech will host the University of Alaska, a team which recently showed could skate with the Huskies. The Huskies wouldn't want to give up the first seed for any match up, but the University of Alaska couldn't have been Tech's first choice.
#3 Bowling Green State University at #10 University of Alabama-Huntsville
Friday: 5-7, Saturday: 5-0
The Alabama-Huntsville Chargers were the only WCHA team coming into the weekend who knew their playoff position—they were mathematically excluded after last weekend—and they responded by playing spoiler to Bowling Green's hopes for a share of the MacNaughton Cup. Since BGSU had clinched at least third seed after last weekend, Saturday's game was the only WCHA matchup which had no effect on the standings.
Good News for Huskies Fans: Alabama-Huntsville did Tech a solid on Friday and kept the Falcons out of the MacNaughton Cup. Don't underestimate a team who can only play spoiler.
Bad News for Huskies Fans: Bowling Green gives up an average 2.18GAA, so don't expect them to get into many 5-7 games in the playoffs. Tech may have to eventually go through BGSU again in the WCHA playoffs.
#9 University of Alaska-Anchorage at #8 University of Alaska
Friday: 2-3, Saturday 2:3
The final game of the 2015-2016 WCHA season determined MTU's first round playoff match up. Tyler Morley (F, Jr. - UA), who could not play against MTU February 26th and 27th, had four points (2G, 2A) on the weekend. Morley is the Nanooks' leading scorer this season. After the end of play Saturday night, a small brawl broke out as the Seawolves ended their season. One of many rivalry games to tie things off, this brawl was one of several to end the regular season.
Good News for Huskies Fans: No doubt MTU is looking forward to the rematch with UA. The University of Alaska has the lowest PWR of any WCHA team in the tournament, at 53. The next lowest is LSSU at 44. When asked about potential first round match ups following Saturday's game, Mel Pearson didn't express much concern one way or another. "I don't think it really matters at this point," Pearson said.
Bad News for Huskies Fans: MTU may have previously wanted the chance to take on UAA again, as being swept by the Seawolves has been considered by many to be the low point of the season. UA put up a significant show when in Houghton at the end of February.