An important rivalry weekend in the WCHA takes place when Michigan Tech (4-5-2) and Northern Michigan (5-3-0) clash in the first of two home-and-home’s this season. MTU did not have a good weekend, losing to and tying with Bowling Green at home. Saturday’s tie ended a four-game losing streak, but they still have not won since Oct. 20th. They badly need some wins against one of the most improved teams in the nation.
Northern Michigan is definitely feeling good after splitting back-to-back weekends with two of the nation’s elite: Wisconsin and Minnesota State. While they had the benefit of playing both series at home, wins against each of these teams not only helps their confidence but also their potential for Pairwise contention later in the year.
This is as much a matchup of schools taking differing approaches in hiring a new head coach as it is anything. Northern made the “splashy” signing, pursuing two-time national champion at Minnesota Grant Potulny. Tech, of course, stayed in-house by signing a veteran coach in Joe Shawhan. This is in no way suggesting that this weekend will decide who made a better choice – it is far too early for that. Still, it is going to be a talking point considering the rivalry and the way in which each program decided to progress.
Michigan Tech has dominated the rivalry recently, winning eight of the last ten matchups as NMU has struggled in the past few years to find success. Now, we see a very different situation: Northern is riding high from the last two weekends, carry a national ranking in the USCHO.com poll, and are starting to garner some wider national attention. This is a good test for them to see if they can play with some pressure.
To do that, they will rely on a pair of upperclassmen who both already have double-digit points: senior forward Robbie Payne and junior forward Troy Loggins. Payne entered the year as the top returning scorer from an offense that was not very good (2.38 goals per game). While they still do not score at a high rate, the offense appears to be more capable. The Wildcats have compensated for that better this season with a stronger defense, only allowing 2.50 goals per game.
Northern returned one of the country’s best goalies in Atte Tolvanen. He has been solid, but not otherworldly, leaving a window for fellow junior goaltender Mathias Israelsson. He has played well in limited chances, replacing Tolvanen against Wisconsin in their loss before getting his first start against Minnesota State—a victory. Considering how good Israelsson was last weekend against MSU, it would not be a surprise if he earned another start this weekend.
Michigan Tech put together their most uninspired weekend of the year, mustering only three goals in two games and surrendering five of the six league points to the Falcons. Perhaps most striking was the fact that six of the seven goals scored on the weekend were on the power play. MTU has been elite on the man advantage and woefully inadequate killing penalties, so this weekend was really indicative of what the Huskies’ season has been like. Until the penalty kill can keep opponents off the board, Michigan Tech is going to struggle to win the games they need.
On a better note, Devin Kero played both nights and was strong. I was harsh on him in the preseason and, at least internally with THG staff, said that I would love to have to eat my words. It is early, still only two starts for Kero, but he impressed against a team in the top half of the league which is certainly worthy of praise. He will likely play on Friday night and now has a real opportunity to win the starting role. At this point, the coaching staff is just looking for some stability in net and perhaps Kero is the answer.
Keys to the Game
- Limit defensive zone mistakes. This has the making of a low scoring weekend, considering the Wildcats do not score much and MTU has really cooled off after the offense’s quick start. 1-0 or 2-1 could easily be a winning score, meaning that every mistake will be magnified.
- Get the home crowd involved. The Huskies are 1-3-1 at home, nowhere near the record they want to have at home. They have a strong home crowd and have the opportunity to break their winless streak at MacInnes on Friday.
- Have a positive special teams weekend. Head Coach Joe Shawhan talked about it again after Saturday’s tie saying “Our special teams need a tremendous amount of work.” I mention special teams every week, but every week I hope and expect that the Huskies spent all week focusing on killing penalties. One of these weekends, they are going to show signs of improvement. Hopefully this is the one.
It is easy to think of Northern as a team in the bottom half of the league, considering they have been down there since the new WCHA was formed. This is not the same team as years past. They are likely the favorite entering the weekend and will not be an easy matchup for the Huskies. Still, I think MTU comes in desperate enough to earn a split with both teams winning at home. Tech wins Friday 3-2, Northern wins Saturday 2-0.
Cover photo credit Bob Gilreath.