Well, folks, we’re back for another year of Michigan Tech Huskies hockey and it all begins on Sunday afternoon in Madison against the Wisconsin Badgers. The Huskies will be tested immediately by a talented and hungry UW team that is looking for the fast start that has eluded them in recent years. Wisconsin will immediately head into three straight games against preseason top twenty teams (two against #19 Ohio State and one against #13 Boston College). Michigan Tech is likewise incentivized to start fast because next week they will head to Duluth for the Ice Breaker tournament where they will face a pair of elite programs in Union and Minnesota Duluth.
With this being the first game under a new coaching staff and a quite a bit of roster turnover, any thoughts on MTU this weekend are largely conjecture. This game will be mostly about seeing how Head Coach Joe Shawhan wants to play. He knows full well that this team struggled to generate offense last season, so the main focus will be watching for what his plan is to alleviate that. Will Shawhan push the tempo and take more chances this year? Or will he continue the defensive style that has limited chances to score but has also taken them to the national tournament in two of the last three seasons? That may not be determined this early in the year, but it will be worth paying attention.
In the interest of not repeating myself too much from my position-specific previews (you can find them here, here, and here), I want to touch on a few players that should be factors on Sunday. The first is obvious: goaltender Packy Munson. Every indication is that he will be in the net on Sunday. Munson has a lot to prove early in the year as he attempts to lock down the starting job immediately. He will be tasked with stopping a team that was top-ten in offense a year ago and returns three of its top four scorers. After the early season goaltending struggles a year ago that handicapped the team’s ability to compete in the Pairwise Rankings, all MTU stakeholders will have this situation front of mind.
Also watch for a presence from forwards Joel L’Esperance, Jake Lucchini and Gavin Gould. They were the focus of the forwards preview because they come in with the highest expectations. When MTU won an at-large bid three years ago, it came off the backs of a 10-0-0 start. I’m not saying they need to recreate that, but the value of a hot start cannot be understated, especially for a team that only gets a few chances to play the best teams in the nation.
Wisconsin comes in with high expectations considering their relative struggles last year. The Big Ten coaches picked them to finish third in a loaded conference that added Notre Dame that already had tournament contenders in Minnesota, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan. The USCHO voters have them 12th in the preseason poll above perennial favorites Quinnipiac and Boston College. While the Badgers lost their best player in Luke Kunin, they will have little problem covering that scoring with returning members and a strong recruiting class. They also picked up the best graduate transfer the sport has had in years: former St. Lawrence goaltender Kyle Hayton.
This will be a battle between veteran transfer goalies, although Hayton has the edge on Munson in experience. A two-year starter at SLU, Hayton was always among the leaders in both save percentage and goals against. In 2015-16, he was fourth in the nation with a .935 SV%. Last year, he was a semifinalist for the Mike Richter Award and won ECAC goaltender of the year. He is immediately the best goaltender in the Big Ten and will make them extremely dangerous after missing the 2017 National Tournament by the smallest of margins.
The Badgers will also bring a powerful line of forwards on Sunday. Led by sophomore Trent Frederic, senior Cameron Hughes, and junior Seamus Malone, this will be a hard team to stop offensively. Frederick averaged over a point per game last year en route to winning the Big Ten Rookie of the Year. This is a strong lineup as a whole, although their defense was susceptible to lapses last year. If they limit mistakes and rely on the consistent strong play of their new goaltender, Wisconsin will be very good this season.
Keys to the Game
- Limit the top line. Like many teams with elite talent, Wisconsin can become reliant on those players. Early in the year, there could be some chemistry issues so MTU could find success if they prevent the Badgers’ all-stars from establishing themselves.
- Win the goaltending battle. This is unlikely just based on historical data, but the Huskies must get a great performance from Munson to win this game. He has the talent, but how rusty will he be after over a year away from real games?
- Take advantage of the situation. Consider this: Denver was easily the best team in the nation last season and looked unbeatable from about January until the final buzzer in early April. How did they begin the season? Back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Boston College. While I think Wisconsin is a clear NCAA Tournament team, sometimes it takes a little while to establish a rhythm. The first game can often be a toss-up as teams try to figure themselves out. This is a great chance on a more even playing field than it might be mid-season.
If the Huskies weren’t going through their own restructuring with a new staff and new roster, I might be tempted to pick them. As is, it is hard to see them being settled enough in a new system to be able to overcome one of the most talented teams in the nation. Wisconsin wins 3-1 in a closer game than many across the country might think.