What a huge weekend!
With Friday night’s early explosion against Union followed by Saturday’s gritty never-say-die effort against Minnesota Duluth, the Huskies claimed the Icebreaker Championship in the AMSOIL Arena in front of a crowd of mostly-Bulldog fans. With these wins against ranked opponents, Tech vaulted into the USCHO rankings at #15. And, more significantly, the Huskies ended up sixth in the Pairwise Rankings (PWR).
Of course, it’s very early in the season. After cautioning uneasy fans that it was too early to panic after the tough loss at Wisconsin, I’d add now that it’s way too early to start planning for an NCAA Regional game. But my Two-Hearted Ale—one bottle on Friday, one on Saturday—was doggone good this time around! (Only one each night? Well, the Old Dog can’t lap it up the way he used to when he was a young pup in the UP—at least not if he wants to become and Even Older Dog…)
Still, when something smells really good, an Old Dog just has to roll in it. There were a number of things to relish—including Mark Auk’s tournament MVP performance, the L’Esperance-Lucchini-Gould line’s offensive production, and Packy Munson’s big saves at key moments. And the special teams were outstanding, with 4 goals in 10 chances on the power play and just one goal against in seven penalty kills. The Huskies only had 7 minors in two games, about one minor per period. Auk was so good both nights that he made me wonder what things might have been like if Matt Roy had stayed for his senior year.
Adding to the list of positives for Tech were the performances of the freshmen and sophomores. Gavin Gould was on the scoresheet both nights, with big plays in both games. Mitch Meek had a goal and was +2 against Union. Thomas Beretta was also +2 on Friday night. Seamus Donohue was solid in his own end both nights, too. Against UMD, Justin Misiak scored the game winner with a great setup from Alex Smith, while Keegan Ford added the other assist on Misiak’s goal.
At the end of the championship game, at one of the most important times in the game, Misiak put on a mini-clinic in how to kill the clock, ragging the puck in the offensive zone while the Bulldogs chased him. Grayson Reitmeier, the former Flin Flon Bomber (you just gotta love reading that, I love writing it) was 11-10 on face-offs; a solid performance for a freshman in big-time games. Raymond Brice, the Houghton boy, scored a key goal with a nifty combination steal and one-time backhand to tie the game in the first period against the Bulldogs. For Brice, after a difficult freshman year where he struggled to get ice time and then got hurt in his first game in the lineup, it had to be a superb feeling.
But sometimes, whatever it is you roll in also has a less pleasant odor, too. There were a lot more minus ratings than plus ratings on Saturday night, something that is likely to happen when 3 of your 4 goals are scored on power plays. Jake Lucchini and Dylan Steman struggled with face-offs on Friday night, but turned things around on Saturday. Still, Tech was 51-70 on puck drops over the weekend, something that could have consequences if it doesn’t turn around as the season unfolds. Getting outshot by almost two to one on both nights is not a long-term success formula, either.
Finally, as someone who played a ton of goal in beer leagues and frequent pick-up hockey for more than 20 years, I have to say that Munson wasn’t lights-out in goal. He was very good, good enough to win both games, and that’s what counts. Each night, though, there was one early tally that made me wonder what would happen later. In fact, on Saturday, after the second Duluth goal at the 8:32 mark in the first period, I got up to drop a shot of rye into my Two Hearted Ale (it seemed necessary at the time), and I mumbled to my wife Carol, “This is almost over. We’re gonna get whacked.” Just goes to show that an Old Dog can over-react, too! Still, these two wins are as big as it gets at this point in the season, and Husky Nation should be both thrilled and proud of what Joe Shawhan’s team has done.
More importantly, Shawhan hit the nail on the head in his post-game interview Saturday night when he praised the character of his team. To fight off a late charge by Union and overcome an early blitz by Duluth requires determination, poise, and a good measure of self-confidence. These are the things that champions own and display on a consistent basis. Union and Duluth are good teams, and these wins are going to count in the PWR at the end of the year. You saw this in Munson’s play, and you saw it with Smith’s brilliant saucer pass to Misiak for the goal that brought the crystal trophy home to the Mac. If Tech can maintain that, and if the players show the kind of improvement that Shawhan talks about as his major coaching goal, I think we are going to enjoy a very entertaining and exciting season.
With a trip to Lake Superior State next up on the schedule, the Huskies can’t afford to let up or expect an easy game. When I was a student at Tech, LSSU was still “Soo Tech,” a branch campus of the Michigan College of Mining and Technology. Before I graduated, they were spun off as an independent institution and MCMT became Michigan Technological University.
After a split with Northern last weekend, I expect the Lakers to come out with guns blazing when the Huskies hit the ice at the Taffy-Abel Arena on Friday. Look for Nathaniel Brose’s series preview on Thursday from THG. He really hit the nail on the head with his predictions last week for the Icebreaker, so I’m going to leave the detailed preview in his capable hands.
In the meantime, I’m just gonna wallow in it—2017 Icebreaker Champions!