Believe it or not, as Mr. Ripley would say, the Huskies have completed about 30% of their schedule for the 2017-2018 season. With a record of 4-5-2, let’s consider what they’ve shown us up to this point.
On a timeline, Tech started out great—a solid performance at Wisconsin and the Icebreaker win put Tech into the national spotlight. Then things slowed down considerably, and Them Dogs have now gone winless in five straight contests. That’s not what we expected after a great start. So, let’s evaluate what we’ve watched in eleven games.
Penalty killing and the powerplay have had an outsized impact on almost every game. 14 of 32 total goals have come on the PP with a decent success rate of 24%. The PK, though, has been lousy, and at times outright terrible. Opponents have scored 14 of the 33 goals Tech has yielded on the PK, and the kill rate—68%—just isn’t good enough for a team with any kind of post-season potential.
Worse, execution for both the powerplay and penalty kill have been inconsistent. On the PP, Tech has thrown the puck around the perimeter far too often, and has ended up losing control with difficult-to-execute short passes into the slot and along the boards. They don’t clog the crease enough, and opposing netminders end up with a clear view more often than they should. When faced with aggressive penalty killing, the Huskies have suffered way too many PP chances that have yielded no serious scoring chances.
The PK is even worse. The coaches admit it, and they have to take some of the heat for what’s occurred. Far too often, black and gold defenders have retreated deep within their own zone, effectively ceding the top third of their defensive end to attackers. This past weekend, Bowling Green was able to move the puck with virtually no pressure for most of their powerplay opportunities, giving them 5 of 6 points without a single even-strength goal.
Giving a decent powerplay space along the boards and free rein almost down to the hash marks or faceoff dots is a recipe for disaster. When Tech has applied pressure, they’ve had more success. But something is clearly wrong when the other side’s powerplay can keep the puck for more than a minute and almost never see a serious defensive challenge. A 68% kill ratio is going to lead to losses no matter what else happens.
For the most part, goaltending has been solid but not spectacular. We haven’t seen a ton of bad goals, but we haven’t seen any stolen games, either. Packy Munson has played most of the games, and he’s usually given Tech a chance to win. Devin Kero looked quite good this past weekend, and may be looking at more starts in the coming weeks.
Robbie Beydoun was given a brief look against UAH, faced two difficult shots and one scored (the second went in, too, but was disallowed). Joe Shawn has admitted he pulled him too fast after that episode, and we can only hope that didn’t burn too deeply into the psyche of the freshman goalie. Why Beydoun got a start before Kero is a bit of a head scratcher for the Old Dog.
On the other hand, we’ve seen some things about the play in goal that needs to improve. Munson has given up some big rebounds, and Kero gave up a couple fat ones this past weekend, too. Still, it’s hard to say this is a big flaw given the penalty kill story.
Nevertheless, with an overall save percentage of 0.898, Tech’s ability to keep the rubber on the good side of the red line speaks for itself. It ain’t great, but it’s not terrible, either.
Blue liners have generally played well. Mark Auk’s been great, but in the last two series you could see Minnesota State and Bowling Green making a real effort to contain and harass him and it had an impact. Mitch Reinke’s stood out at times, and Dane Birks has been solid in most situations.
Just as special teams have been inconsistent, the ability of the D-men to stay out of the box has been up and down. Tech’s had a number of low-penalty games and penalty-free periods, but they’ve also had a couple of periods where they can’t seem to avoid trip after trip to the box. Worse, very few of the penalties that we’ve seen are “good” penalties, penalties taken to thwart clear scoring chances. There have been too many holding and interference calls against Tech.
Freshman defenders Mitch Meek and Seamus Donohue have done well given their need to adapt to Division I pace, strength and structure. Keegan Ford has been okay, but his +/- rating of -5 offsets Auk’s +5.
The story of the forwards has been about line combinations as much as anything. The Lucchini-L’Esperance-Gould line has looked very good and has dominated play for long stretches. When the coaching staff tried to balance things out by splitting them up, the result was not good at all, giving us four mediocre lines that couldn’t get any offensive pressure at all for way-too-long stretches.
Justin Misiak has played quite well, though, and looks like he could be an outstanding NCAA player. Dylan Steman, as always, works his tail off, digs for the pucks in tough places and has been a positive force. Steman doesn’t have a single point all year, though, and has a -3 rating.
Thomas Beretta is improving and seems to be getting a bigger role as he plays more. Jake Jackson has continued the pattern we’ve seen from him in his entire career. At times, he looks like a potential All-American. At other times, you wonder if he’s been scratched or has gone to the locker room.
As the season started, the coaching staff was the biggest question in the Old Dog’s mind. Joe Shawhan said the right things and communicated a sense of tradition and enthusiasm that was contagious. When the Huskies were winning, it seemed like a great combination.
When the current slump set in it became apparent that the staff, like the relatively inexperienced roster, needs to raise their game to a higher level. The weakness on the penalty kill, and the passive nature of the scheme that’s been used most of the time, is certainly something that the coaches need to own. The Beydoun incident is another issue.
Splitting up the LLG line was another judgment call that didn’t work out very well. While Shawhan has continued to preach that improvement is more important than winning alone, it’s hard to make the case that Tech has improved much since their victories over Union and Minnesota-Duluth.
The next two months will likely make or break this edition of the Huskies. The home-and-home with Northern and the Alaska trip will round out November. In December, two home series with Ferris State and Lake Superior State will be critical if Tech wants any chance to stay in the race for the McNaughton Cup. Follow that with the GLI and Vegas tournaments, and the die may well be cast for this team.
To keep in the hunt for home ice in the WCHA playoffs, and to keep from being buried in the Pairwise Rankings, MTU has to do much better in the next 10 weeks. The coaches need to figure some things out, the players need to perform more consistently, and the goaltending must get sorted. In particular, if the penalty kill doesn’t get a whole lot better, the Old Dog may take to drinking more on game nights.