Series Preview: WCHA Quarterfinals Minnesota State @ Michigan Tech

The WCHA playoffs continue this weekend with a semifinal clash between the second-seeded Michigan Tech Huskies (20-13-7) and the third-seeded Minnesota State Mavericks (21-11-4). The Mavericks took care of business on home ice in the quarterfinals against Alaska, allowing only a single goal in their two-game sweep of the Nanooks. They will have a much tougher matchup this weekend when they head north to face the Huskies, who had a bumpier road on their way to a sweep last week, taking a pair of decisions against Lake Superior State. Friday will be the fifth game between these squads; MSU swept MTU in Mankato in October and then tied and lost to the Huskies in a series in Houghton in late January.

Blueliner Mark Auk lines up a shot against Mankato goaltender Aaron Nelson when Michigan Tech hosted the Mavericks earlier this season (Photo credit: Bob Gilreath).

Blueliner Mark Auk lines up a shot against Mankato goaltender Aaron Nelson when Michigan Tech hosted the Mavericks earlier this season (Photo credit: Bob Gilreath).

Analysis

They say familiarity breeds contempt, and this rings especially true in this series between the Huskies and Mavericks. The makeshift rivalry between the two most successful teams in the new WCHA has been mostly dominated by Minnesota State. While not a historic rivalry, they have faced off 13 times since realignment, four seasons ago. MSU is 9-2-2 in that stretch, including a victory in the WCHA championship game in 2015. The Huskies have been the class of the WCHA over the last three seasons, finishing no lower than second in the regular season each year, yet they have consistently struggled with Minnesota State. This weekend they have a chance to exorcise those demons, so to speak.

MSU is playing its best hockey of the year currently after a long season of inconsistency following a 5-0-0 start to the year. The Mavericks have won five of six and have not surrendered more than two goals in its last four games while scoring at least four goals in four of its last six. They have been hard to score on and hard to keep out of the net which, unsurprisingly, has led to good results.

A big part of this recent success is the hot streak Sophomore goaltender Jason Pawloski has been on. He has started three straight games, all victories, and has allowed only two total goals which earned him this week’s WCHA Defensive Player of the Week. This could not come at a better time for the Mavericks because their most glaring issue all year has been between the pipes. Incumbent Cole Huggins, a senior, has been dreadful this season in 19 games with a save percentage barely above .900. Junior goalie Aaron Nelson was a failed experiment as a starter with his save percentage sitting at .898 in nine games. While MSU has been very good defensively as a unit, they have been let down by the netminders all year. Head Coach Mike Hastings finally has an easy decision to make in net for what is seemingly the first time all season: Minnesota State will either live or die with Pawloski this weekend.

The Mavericks offense is paced by a pack of double-digit goal scorers, led by freshman forward Marc Michaelis. He was held pointless in last weekend’s sweep of Alaska, but he has a goal and four assists in four games against MTU this season. Beyond Michaelis, fellow rookie Parker Tuomie is a forward the Huskies need to track this weekend following his four-point outburst against Alaska. Also notable is Junior forward C.J. Franklin who leads the league’s best power play with 7 goals on the man advantage.

Michigan Tech enters this series on a high after an 8-0 blowout to end LSSU’s season last Saturday. As much as the goals, which have often been severely absent all year, were a nice sign for Huskies’ fans, a more important takeaway from that game was goaltender Angus Redmond finding success again. It is well known that "Beef" has struggled down the stretch. That shutout, even one that only required a garden-variety 16 saves, is a potential sign that he is seeing the puck well again. He will need to be at his very best this weekend against the 16th-best offense in the nation in the country if MTU is to advance to the winner-take-all championship game next weekend.

The Huskies can help Redmond and themselves by building on the emergence of a productive offense, one that put up 14 goals last weekend. Eleven different players scored, showcasing a balanced, if not star-driven, lineup that is capable of finding scoring from everywhere. Since being shut out by Bemidji State on February 4th, MTU has averaged 4.50 goals in a six-game span. Last weekend’s scoring outburst was not an anomaly: The Huskies have been scoring at a strong pace for the better part of two months. While the offense is definitely the reason why Michigan Tech is well out of the Pairwise picture for an at-large bid, it could very well be the reason why they make the NCAA tournament via the WCHA’s automatic bid.

Keys to the Game

  1. Get to Minnesota State’s goaltending early. While there is little doubt that Pawloski is going to start this weekend, he is not likely to have a long leash. If the Huskies can get to him early, it will throw a wrench into Coach Hastings’ plan and force tough decisions throughout the weekend.
  2. Utilize the home ice advantage. MTU fought the last two months for the right to host this weekend’s series, and for good reason. The Huskies have not won in Mankato since 2012 and MSU has not won in Houghton since 2014. Further, Michigan Tech is 9-3-4 at home and Minnesota State is 8-8-1 on the road. Both teams have severe home/road splits, so this could be a difference maker in the end. One note: this is spring break for Michigan Tech students. Hopefully they head back to school early and fill the place up to support their team.
  3. Enjoy the moment. No other league has on-campus postseason games beyond the quarterfinals. This is a unique opportunity for the Huskies to get to a championship game by playing in their own barn. MacInnes should be rocking. Either these are the last games of the year at home or they will be hosting Bowling Green for the championship game next week. Either way, there should be no shortage of motivation to take out the Mavericks and extend the season.

My Prediction

After every quarterfinal series last weekend was won by the home team, it is difficult to pick against the home team here. These two teams are both playing strong team hockey, have offenses that are playing well, and some question marks in net. I have a strong gut feeling that the winner of this series will be the WCHA representative in the NCAA tournament. There is very little separating the two, but in the end Minnesota State has the star power to carry their team when things get tight late in games or in game 3. I expect three close games with MSU barely edging out Tech, continuing their mastery of the Huskies. Game 1: MSU wins 4-3. Game 2: MTU wins 3-2. Game 3: MSU wins 4-2. Each game starts at 7:07pm Eastern.

Bonus Prediction: Bowling Green takes their dominance of Ferris State last week into northern Minnesota and shocks the Beavers. Falcons win in 3 games.