After over a month away from conference play, Michigan Tech (14-9-3) reenters the battle for the McNaughton Cup with every remaining game on the schedule counting towards the WCHA standings. The Huskies start off the stretch run looking to avenge being swept in Houghton last season by the pesky Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves (5-14-3).
Michigan Tech played in front of a national audience for the first time this season (via NBC Sports Network) and pleasantly surprised casual viewers as well as MTU fans. The Huskies showed off their strong defensive system, holding the Notre Dame team to five goals on the weekend, roughly a goal per night fewer than they average. I was able to attend both games in person, and the most obvious positive was how decisively MTU shut down the Irish’s biggest star, Anders Bjork (F, Jr.). He was held to just one assist and four shots on goal throughout the weekend, in large part because his speed was negated by the Huskies’ fast blueliners. Looking forward, this suggests that Tech will not be fazed by any single player that is capable of taking over a game. In the WCHA, the most dangerous likely are Minnesota State’s Marc Michaelis (F, Fr.) and his 27 points as well as Bowling Green’s 14 goal scorer Mitchell McLain (F, Jr.). The Huskies’ success in 2017 will begin and end with their defense continuing to dominate games.
On the flip side, there were two troublesome trends I noticed in South Bend. First, the MTU power play struggled yet again. On Friday night and the first two periods on Saturday, the Huskies did next to nothing positive with the man advantage. There was a lack of movement and a tendency by the puckhandler to skate himself into trouble. It wasn’t until midway through the third period on Saturday when the Huskies' power play finally put together a strong two minutes. While they didn’t score, it set the tone for the remaining minutes of their 4-2 triumph. Hopefully, Tech remembers this strong final power play and takes it into this weekend against UAA.
The other notable this weekend was Angus Redmond’s relative struggles. Having been nearly unbeatable during his tenure as the starting netminder this season, Tech fans have been spoiled by very seldom seeing soft goals against. The final two goals in ND’s 3-1 win on Friday were both tallies that Redmond will want back, and the same goes for the Irish’s second goal on Saturday. At this point, it is more than fair to chalk these goals up as aberrations considering the 21-year old’s incredible consistency thus far. Still, it is something to watch for, especially this weekend where “Beef” is likely to get very few chances for saves.
When Michigan Tech last saw UAA, the Seawolves were in the midst of a season-worst six-game losing streak. Ever since the Huskies and Seawolves tied on November 19th, UAA has gone 4-4-1 including a tie at BGSU and a win hosting Bemidji State. They are no longer the worst team in the country, in fact they are not even the worst team in the conference (Northern Michigan holds that happy distinction). While their offense is still last in the nation thanks to a pair of shutouts during the last month and a half, they have closed the gap between them and the rest of the nation and added over a half goal per game.
Junior goaltender Oliver Mantha, who I spotlighted in November as the Seawolves’ source of any and all hope, has been on a roll. He has not surrendered more than three goals in a game since November 11th and has solid overall numbers: a 2.61 goals against average and a .917 save percentage. While Michigan Tech is riding some offensive confidence having put up four goals on Saturday against Cal Peterson, one of the best goalies in the country, there is no denying the inconsistency of the MTU attack. Mantha is the biggest obstacle in the way of a six-point weekend for the Huskies. The worst-case scenario for MTU is a cloning of the performance of Western Michigan’s Ben Blacker, who shut out the Huskies for over 72 minutes in the GLI championship game.
Keys to the Game
- Fix the power play this weekend. While UAA is playing its best hockey of the year, so is MTU. There is a sizable talent gap and the Huskies are coming off two weekends against high-end talent, so they are going to find quite a bit more time and space. Tech is playing to catch Bemidji and win the WCHA playoffs, neither of which are likely to happen without at least a competent power play. This is the weekend to figure it out, where there is the most room for error.
- Keep good habits and stay focused. The biggest risk this weekend is that the Huskies spot themselves a nice lead both nights and then get lackadaisical in their own zone, developing bad habits a week before Minnesota State comes to town. I firmly believe MTU should have no problem winning these games, so they need to stay within the moment and not play stupid or look ahead to the series against the Mavericks.
- Buck the strange trends. As many MTU fans may know, the Huskies have had a tendency to play better on Saturday night. MTU is 1-3 in their last four Friday games and UAA is 4-0, which only furthers that narrative entering this weekend. The Huskies cannot afford the same Friday night letdown against UAA that Bemidji State had two weeks ago.
Michigan Tech picked up a huge morale-boosting win in South Bend last weekend and springboard off of it into WCHA play. They know they have little room for error if they want to catch the Beavers to win the regular season crown and the chance to host the winner-take-all WCHA championship game in Houghton. I think MTU comes through this weekend, keeping the pressure on BSU. Huskies sweep, 3-0, 5-3. Both games start at 7:07pm ET.