The first round of the WCHA playoffs begins with a best-of-three quarterfinal matchup between the 2nd-seed Michigan Tech Huskies (18-13-7) and the 7th-seed Lake Superior State Lakers (11-16-7). Tech locked up the 2nd seed and home ice through the semifinals with a win last Friday at Northern Michigan, and lost in a generally meaningless game, at least for MTU, at home on Saturday. Lake State is coming to Houghton thanks to a shootout victory over Ferris State that boosted them past NMU into the 7th spot in the conference.
For both of these squads, and every team in the WCHA, this weekend begins with a blank slate. No team is getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, so regardless of seed or record, all that matters is winning. This matchup features two teams with different strengths that should lead to an interesting, and probably closer than expected, series. Michigan Tech is well-known to be a national force defensively, still 8th in the nation in goals against per game even with a recent slight decline. MTU has not given up fewer than two goals in a game in eight straight, which is their worst stretch of the year. Fortunately, the offense has compensated for the most part by scoring three or more goals in five of those games.
One player to watch for this weekend is senior forward Reid Sturos, who has six points in his last seven games, including a pair of goals in the Winter Carnival victory over Ferris State. Freshman defenseman Mitch Reinke is also someone to keep an eye on with 10 of his 18 points on the year coming in the last eight games. Reinke is just one in a long line of dangerous Tech defensemen who pick up the majority of this team’s points. Even though the defense and goaltending have fallen off slightly, they are still the strength of this team from top to bottom. It is clear that the forwards are not likely to produce at a high rate, so for MTU to make a run, it will start with the likes of freshman netminder Angus Redmond, Reinke, and the other blueliners.
While the Huskies are not entering the postseason playing at their best, neither are their opponents. LSSU has stumbled into the postseason, relying on the league’s most 2-point wins (via 3-on-3 or shootout) to carry them to the 7th seed. The Lakers have not won a game in the last eight tries, alternating losses and ties in that stretch. Lake State relies on a strong offense to carry them—they scored at least four goals in eight of their 11 wins. Five skaters have double-digit goal totals, led by a pair of 13-goal scorers in sophomore forward Gage Torrel and freshman forward Max Humitz. Neither were particularly effective in the only series between the two teams with the two stars combining for only one point.
Defensively, the Lakers are 38th in the country in goals allowed per game, giving up just over three goals per night. They have struggled to keep even middling squads off the score sheet, although junior goaltender Gordon Defiel has played relatively well. His .917 save percentage is well within an acceptable range, but MTU had his number in November when they posted 10 goals on 65 shots in two nights.
History is not on the side of the Lakers this weekend. Michigan Tech has not lost to LSSU in nine straight meetings and has won by at least two goals in the last five. This is their first postseason matchup in series history.
Keys to the Series
- Win the battle of mediocrity. Simply put, this series will come down to the matchup of Michigan Tech’s middling offense and a similarly uninspiring Lake State defense. In early November, that same battle was won decisively by the Huskies by a combined score of 10-3.
- Take advantage on the man advantage. One major difference between these teams is on the power play. While both teams have a similar penalty kill, the Huskies’ powerplay runs at a 17.7% clip, 4% higher than the Lakers. I have this as the deciding factor in this series: if the Huskies are successful with the extra man, they should have no problem this weekend.
- Angus Redmond needs to find himself again. It would be a shock if Tech’s season ends this weekend, even if ‘Beef’ does not regain his midseason form. Still, he really needs to do so or MTU will not be the favorite next weekend if the likely matchup with Minnesota State comes to fruition. There is no more time, no more room for error. It is now or never for the freshman to carry this squad deep into March.
The Lakers do not have the luxury of playing for a shootout this weekend – every game will be decided 5-on-5 no matter how long it takes. For a team that has not won a game in less than 65 minutes since January 21st, it is very hard to justify picking them against a superior opponent in a hostile locale. Michigan Tech has the ability to flex its muscles and limit the Lake State scoring enough to come away with a pair of victories. I expect a sweep here, but MTU is no dominant force itself so a third game could definitely materialize. Michigan Tech wins 5-2, 4-3 (and wins game 3 3-1, if necessary). Both games start at 7:07pm Eastern.
Because it is the playoffs, I will also be picking the other WCHA series.
#8 Northern Michigan @ #1 Bemidji State: BSU sweeps, 3-0, 3-2.
#6 Alaska @ #3 Minnesota State: MSU wins 1-3, 5-4, 3-1.
#5 Ferris State @ #4 Bowling Green: BGSU sweeps, 2-1 (OT), 3-0.