One of the biggest weekends of the year in the WCHA takes place in late October when Michigan Tech (4-2-1) heads to Mankato to play Minnesota State (3-2-0). Due to the conference’s imbalanced schedule, this is the only time the Huskies and Mavericks face off in the regular season. That makes this a high-leverage weekend, with the team who comes away with more points situated nicely to finish at the top of the WCHA.
Michigan Tech lost to Alabama-Huntsville for the first time in history last Saturday to finish what can only be considered a disappointing weekend.
First, the positives: MTU continues to find scoring with ease, especially from their top guys. Gavin Gould and Joel L’Esperance both scored yet again, and each are averaging a point per game. Senior defenseman Mark Auk has seven assists in seven games and leads the team in scoring with nine points. The power play found success again as well, scoring three goals on Friday in the 5-4 victory. The Huskies are producing at a 29% clip, good for 12th in the nation. This has been a focal point in this space for a couple weeks now, and if it continues, scoring will be this team’s strong suit.
Now for the bad news: Goaltending was a question mark entering the season and it those questions are only getting louder. Packy Munson allowed four goals on 28 shots on Friday, prompting Head Coach Joe Shawhan to debut freshman netminder Robbie Beydoun on Saturday. Beydoun lasted only nine minutes—Shawhan pulled him after allowing one goal. This week, Shawhan noted that he might have been too quick to pull him, but it only highlighted what has become a clear issue: goaltending needs to improve, especially this week when facing one of the best teams in the country.
The goaltending is somewhat shadowing what might actually be a bigger problem: the penalty kill. For as solid as the team has been up a man, they have been worse when down. They are killing at an abysmal 65% (15-23) rate, third worst in the NCAA. Allowing a goal once every three penalties is a recipe for disaster, and is the reason why they are playing so well yet sit 4-2-1. This is definitely an issue compounded by subpar goaltending, so improving one issue may help solve the other. After watching last year’s incredible team defense, it is certainly strange to watch a Tech team flounder in this area.
Minnesota State is being considered the odds-on favorite to win the WCHA and is thought to be a championship-caliber team by many. Five of their top six scorers from last season returned and they have a strong goaltending tandem with returning junior Jason Pawloski and transfer from Boston University senior Connor LaCouvee. MSU has had a tough schedule to begin the year, losing to undefeated St. Cloud State before sweeping Boston University in Massachusetts and splitting with Bowling Green in Ohio. They have survived the stretch with a winning record, which is certainly impressive. They are led by senior forward Zeb Knutson (3-3-6) and junior defensemen (and one of the country’s best players) Daniel Brickley (1-5-6). They seem to be happy to rotate their goaltending tandem to great success – both have save percentages about .910 and goals against averages below 2.50.
Like Michigan Tech, the Mavericks have a strong powerplay, although they have four fewer goals on a dozen fewer attempts. The special teams difference this weekend comes on the penalty kill, where MSU succeeds 86% of the time. The Huskies will need to crack that penalty kill in order to pick up points this weekend. Minnesota State has also outshot teams all season, especially notable since they have yet to play any bad teams, which could present a real issue when playing an MTU team that has not done a great job of goal prevention. The game that Bowling Green defeated Minnesota State in was characterized by BGSU outshooting MSU and having the same number of power play goals (1-1). This appears to be the route to success against this strong and a balanced team.
Keys to the Game
- Stop the MSU offense however possible. This is not the weekend to try to “figure things out.” The Huskies need to do whatever it takes to come away with points. If that means limit shots and power plays because they cannot expect the goaltending to carry them, that is fine. They just need points. Work on solving issues long-term on a weekend with less at stake.
- Control the tempo. This is going to be the best way to limit shots and scoring opportunities. Learn from what Bowling Green did and keep MSU under 30 shots, that is a definite route to victory.
- Avoid a sweep. Giving Minnesota State six points cannot be the outcome here since this is the only weekend they get to play each other. The Mavericks have a huge advantage getting to play this series at home, so Tech must dig deep and prove they belong in the trophy discussion.
The goaltending worries me quite a bit, even with such a strong offense. This Minnesota State team has as much firepower as the Huskies, but with goalies who have performed much better in the first month. Unfortunately, I see a sweep here. Minnesota State sweeps 5-2, 4-3.