In the Old Dog’s very first column for THG, I suggested that the Huskies wouldn’t have a single easy series in the WCHA this season. So far, that’s the way the story has unfolded. Tech has split two (UAH and NMU), been swept once (MSU), gotten a tie and a shootout win (LSSU) and suffered a loss coupled with a shootout loss (BGSU).
And, I’m sorry to say, that’s not the signature of a real contender, particularly when they’ve only picked up one point out of twelve from the two top teams in the league.
What about the rest of the WCHA? So far, if an Old Dog can count right, there have been sixteen league series (there have also been two non-league series between WCHA members, which I’m not counting). There have been four true six point sweeps: Minnesota State over Tech and Bemidji, Northern over Ferris, and Ferris over Fairbanks. There have also been five series where one team got a clean win and added a shootout victory, but I don’t think that qualifies as a sweep.
That’s a very competitive set of results. How have the Huskies stacked up so far? They are tied for third with NMU with 12 points, but they have played more games than any other team. Alaska Anchorage actually has six games in hand on Tech.
Looking more deeply at league games, Tech is sixth in goals per game with 2.4. They are seventh in goals per shot, scoring on just a bit more than 8% of their chances. In contrast, Minnesota State has scored on almost 13% of their shots. That’s a big difference. The Huskies are also 6th in shots on goal per game, averaging 29.2. A lower-tier scoring rate combined with a lower-tier shot total isn’t a prescription for offensive success.
On the defensive end, Them Dogs are giving up three goals per game in WCHA games, and are next to last with a penalty kill rate of a bit less than 70%. Contrast that with Ferris State’s kill rate of 93%. In goal, Packy Munson has posted a goals-against average of 3.12 with a save percentage of .886, while Devin Kero, in two plus games, sits at 1.94 and .925 for the same averages. Surprisingly, Munson’s numbers are a bit better than Bemidji State’s Michael Bitzer, the pre-season consensus all-league goalie. But Bitzer was bombed this past weekend by Minnesota State, giving up 12 tallies in two games.
If I step back and try and figure out where the Huskies might end up, I’m forced to conclude that they are going to be hard-pressed to get home ice in the WCHA playoffs unless they improve on most of the trends we can see from their first five series.
If I try and sort out the WCHA at this point, I’d say that Minnesota State and Bowling Green are the top teams. Northern Michigan, Tech, Bemidji State and Ferris State are in the next tier. LSSU, UAH, and the two Alaska teams are in the lowest tier. But none of that is etched in stone, and there’s a long way to go. Can Tech work their way to the top of the middle tier or even higher?
The split with NMU offered some hope, as the penalty kill was definitely better. Defenders were more aggressive, and the Huskies’ general kill scheme was solid in handling Northern’s umbrella power play. On Saturday night, though, with the Olympic size ice at the Berry Events Center in Marquette, they clearly had more trouble, particularly with Dylan Steman out of the lineup with an undisclosed injury. Still, it does look like there’s progress there.
On the other hand, if the Huskies keep taking foolish or even stupid penalties at the rate they’ve been racking them up in the past 6 games, no amount of penalty killing will be enough. Time after time, Tech’s players have taken penalties behind the play and in defensive scrums in the corners. These kinds of penalties, which are symptomatic of both a lack of discipline combined with a bit of on-ice panic, are going to make things very difficult.
The whole series was a two-way Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exchange. On Friday, NMU coach Grant Potulny was less than pleased with the way his team came out and competed. On Saturday, Tech’s Joe Shawhan pretty much felt the same way about the Huskies. For Tech to get out of the middle of the pack, they must, without question, eliminate the kind of effort and concentration they exhibited on Saturday. They took too many bad penalties, were out of defensive position too often, and seemed to be off just a bit in nearly every phase of the game.
To Shawhan’s credit, he was upfront about this and acknowledged what most of us could see Saturday in Marquette during his hour long session with Dirk Hembroff on Mix 93 this past Monday.
For the Old Dog, this team has reached a point where I can say that they are either brittle or fragile. I’m not sure which, and these two adjectives are not quite the same. Are they easily thrown off by adversity—fragile—or are they shattered (or brittle) when the other team won’t play the way they love to play?
As we saw in the early games, when they faced teams that play with speed and finesse, they were in their element. Maybe they’d be better off in the ECAC, where that kind of play is typical. But the WCHA is different. It’s a league that features physical play, and the signature of most teams is to play a style or a system that tries to frustrate the talent of their opponents while relying on their goalies to make a fair number of crazy saves.
That seems to rattle the Huskies. As Shawhan said, they can be soft when facing an opponent that tries to disrupt their flow and force them out of the high skill game they prefer. And when that happens, they make small but critical positional errors on the defensive end. They take penalties away from the play that have nothing to do with preventing a scoring opportunity.
I’m sure every coach in the WCHA has noticed that. To keep driving for home ice in the playoff, they need to push back when the other side tries to force their will on Tech. At the game in Marquette Saturday, they didn’t do that. The let NMU run the show. The scoreboard was just the evidence of that.
Alaska Anchorage is likely to try to do the same thing next weekend. It’s been their signature style for years, and they know they will lose whenever a game becomes a skills competition. The Huskies need to step up and stake out their claim to be Lead Dogs—and do that every game.
As the saying goes, if you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.