Series Preview: Northern Michigan vs. Michigan Tech

Michigan Tech (17-12-7) looks to finish the season strong in the final weekend of the regular season with a home-and-home against rival Northern Michigan (11-19-4). MTU needs four points this weekend to guarantee the number two seed in the WCHA and the certainty of home ice in a semifinal series if they get that far. NMU is equally desperate, as they cling to a one-point lead over Alabama-Huntsville for the final playoff spot. UAH holds the tiebreaker there, so the only way the Wildcats control their destiny is if they sweep the Huskies this weekend. They are looking for help from Bowling Green to limit the Chargers’ ability to catch up. With 6 through 9 within four points of each other, there are plenty of question marks surrounding first round matchups and who will be eliminated before the postseason begins.

Scouting Report

The Huskies return from an off week having only won one of their last five games. That slump not only took away any chance at winning the conference but also created a race for second place. Minnesota State is rolling, having won three straight, and hold the tiebreaker over MTU. Tech needs a strong weekend against their biggest rival to have the right to host that three-game series in the semifinals, a series that is likely to be against Minnesota State.

Scoring has not been as much of an issue for Michigan Tech of late, averaging 3.25 goals over the last eight contests. Unfortunately, they have allowed 2.75 goals per game over the same period, over half a goal more than the season average. Angus Redmond has been slightly off his game recently, although it may be unfair to expect him to have kept up his otherworldly numbers from the first two months he played. Even if this is more the “real” Redmond than the Redmond that was a Hobey Baker contender, he is still more than good enough for this team to make a run. The week off should be especially beneficial to him. Like a good chef, perhaps letting ‘Beef’ rest will bring out the best he has to offer. If he gets on a roll, this team is instantly scary to any opponent, WCHA or otherwise. That said, the offense has to continue to improve in the playoffs. Considering the Huskies have scored four or more goals in five of the last eight, it may be possible.

Northern Michigan might be the most confusing team in the country entering this weekend. They began last weekend in Mankato with a five-game shutout streak and goaltender Atte Tolvanen was less than two periods away from setting an NCAA Men’s Division I record for a shutout streak in minutes. They promptly surrendered a goal less than four minutes into Friday’s game en route to being swept and allowing 12 goals in those two games. There is no way of knowing whether that team (or that Tolvanen), is going to return to the UP this weekend or if the nation’s stingiest team in February will reemerge.

Offensively, the Huskies need to keep an eye on senior forward Dominik Shine and junior forward Robbie Payne, who have scored 17 and 12 goals, respectively. The Wildcats are not blessed with any form of scoring depth. If MTU can keep this pair off the board, there are few others that NMU can look to for a big goal.

These teams played each other in the end of October, with MTU sweeping by a combined score of 7-1. The Huskies have now won seven of the last eight meetings dating back to March 2015. The difference-maker this weekend should be special teams, where Michigan Tech holds a distinct advantage both on the PK and the PP. While MTU does not have an elite power play, Northern’s kill is in the bottom third in the country. On the flip side, the Wildcats have a below-average powerplay and should struggle against the Huskies’ elite penalty kill (fifth in the nation).

Keys to the Game

  1. Take the crowd out of Friday’s game. Saturday becomes much less stressful if Michigan Tech can go win on the road of Friday. The best way to do that is to keep at bay what could very well be a raucous crowd considering that this is a rivalry game. Scoring early and often would do this, but so would little things like killing penalties and not giving the Wildcats momentum by missing opportunities with the man advantage.
  2. Keep eyes away from the scoreboard. There will naturally be temptation to try to seek out what the situation in northern Minnesota is, since Minnesota State’s results are as important to MTU as their own game. Still, the Huskies can only control one outcome. Focus will be key this weekend.
  3. Perform well in a big moment. I would argue that there have been three truly big games this season: the GLI championship game, and the pair of games in Bemidji to decide the race for the WCHA crown. Michigan Tech is 0-3 in those contests, which makes me wonder if that is a coincidence or a trend. These are huge games this weekend. Home ice in the semifinals could be the difference—MTU is 7-2-4 at home and 10-10-3 elsewhere. This weekend is as close to big games as they have had outside of the ones aforementioned, considering the stakes and the opponent. This team is capable of being a nuisance in the post-season, but first it has to show it does not fear the spotlight.

My Prediction

If I have learned anything covering this team over the course of the year, it is that the Huskies are unpredictable and they never make things easy for themselves. Northern Michigan is going to be unspeakably desperate for points—they will not want to waste the great run they made in the last month only to miss out on the playoffs by one or two points. While Tech is well aware of how important getting the majority of points this weekend is, I find it hard to believe they will be quite as motivated as a team playing to extend its season.

This weekend screams split, because I think once NMU wins Friday night which should lock up a playoff spot, the desperation flips between the two teams. Friday – NMU wins 3-1. Saturday – MTU wins 5-2. I am guessing that three points is enough to hold off the Mavericks, who would need to sweep Bemidji in this scenario. BSU has little to play for this weekend, however, so I would hardly rule it out. Hold onto your seats, WCHA fans, this weekend will be a wild one.

Both games begin at 7:07pm Eastern Time.

Cover image from October 2015 credit Bob Gilreath.