Well, it's finally here, folks. It's October, which means it's the beginning of the college hockey season. Michigan Tech loaded up Husky One (sporting a fresh wrap job featuring the new athletics logo) this morning to start their trip to Minnesota to take on the University of Minnesota - Duluth Bulldogs. The Bulldogs come into the new year ranked #6 in the USCHO preseason poll, so it may be a bit of an uphill battle for the Boys in Black and Gold, who came up at #17 in the same.
While many would be quick to claim that it's an early game and doesn't affect our spot in the conference standings, there are more long-term issues at stake. These non-conference games can have a strong effect on the PairWise Rankings (PWR) down the road. For those who may have forgotten, PWR is not the actual system used to determine the teams invited to the NCAA tournament, but it has accurately predicted the 16 selections for quite some time now. PWR compares record against common opponents, head-to-head record and the Relative Power Index (RPI) of each team. Regardless, wins this weekend can pay dividends at the end of the season. Each of these two games counts, and the Huskies will need to stay focused to pull through.
There will be plenty of fresh faces for the Huskies tonight, with nine freshmen on this year's squad. Look to see how these new players work alongside the returning players. It's the first game of the year, and this is the first time we will get to see how the team plays against outside competition. Captaining the squad for the season is Cliff Watson (Sr., D); the assistant captains are Brent Baltus (Sr., F), Shane Hanna (Sr., D) and Mike Neville (Sr. F).
Coming off the other bench, look for Riley Tufte (Fr., F - UMD), the 25th overall pick in the most recent NHL draft (Dallas Stars). He led Minnesota Class-AA with 49 goals and 78 points in the 2015-16 season, and he will certainly be hoping to at least show the potential for similar numbers in his transition to college.
Three Keys to the Game
- The Huskies need to score first. This is the first game of the season and everyone is watching. Set the tone with an early lead, and ride that high to more success. It can be tough to get things started on a new season in any sport, so the first goal will be the key to the mental game.
- Next man up. The Huskies had a solid group of seniors graduate last year, and that leaves some openings to be filled by the 19 returning players and the 9 freshmen. Obviously the question on every fan's mind is "Who's in goal?" We still don't know who will start between the pipes for this series (though we speculate it will be Senior Matt Wintjes), but we do know that during last week's Media Day conference call, Head Coach Mel Pearson said he has confidence in all three options. He went on to say that it may be some time before a definite go-to starter emerges, but you can bet that he'll be keeping an eye in that direction throughout the weekend.
- Relax and play sound hockey. I touched on this in the first point, but so much of tonight's game is going to be psychological. It's the new season, and to start on the road is never easy. There's still vestiges of the old WCHA rivalry at stake in the minds of fans, and the crowd is definitely going to be excited. If the Huskies can keep their focus on the ice instead of in the seats, it will be a great night for the team.
It's hard to say at this point, but despite the assumed strength of the opposition and the nature of road games, I'm going to say that the polls have undervalued the Huskies and suggest that they will split the series.