The second half of the Alaska road trip will be in Fairbanks this weekend as Michigan Tech (5-6-4) tries to salvage a disappointing November. The Huskies will face the UAF Nanooks (4-8-2) for the first time this season before Alaska visits Houghton in mid-January. UAF broke a four-game losing streak on Saturday, defeating a strong Northern Michigan team 4-1. With both teams having won only once this month, there will be plenty of desperation in the Carlson Center air.
We have reached the point of the season where the phrase “it’s still early” is no longer reasonable. When this weekend ends, MTU will have played exactly half of their WCHA schedule. There is no sugar coating it: they are not in great shape. Last year they finished second in the regular season with 54 points. Home ice advantage in the first-round last season required 42 points. Right now, MTU is on pace for barely 30 points, which not only gives them no shot at hosting a playoff series, but puts them precariously on the edge of missing the playoffs entirely.
One can hardly argue that they have played the hardest part of their schedule: February includes a road weekend at Bowling Green, a home weekend against Bemidji State, and the season finale home-and-home with Northern. The Huskies need to get hot immediately in order to reverse their fortunes in the WCHA standings.
A pair of ties resulting in picking up only two of six points against UAA is nothing short of disappointing, but there were some positives. First, the Packy Munson looked much better. Munson played well enough on Friday, albeit with limited action, holding the Seawolves to a single goal in 65 minutes. Robbie Beydoun received the start on Saturday but was pulled midway through the second after allowing three goals on eleven shots. Head Coach Joe Shawhan is running out of options, and with Devin Kero’s mysterious injury keeping him from traveling to the 49th State, the Huskies are seemingly going to live or die by Munson’s metaphorical sword.
If there is any other positive from a weekend where MTU could not beat a one-loss team, it is that they allowed zero power play goals. Their Achilles’ Heel all season, it was nice to see the Huskies go 7-for-7 on the kill. With Alaska’s second-worst power play in the nation – a hideous 5-of-72 – MTU should have no problem continuing that success into Thanksgiving weekend.
Alaska has seen their share of struggles this season, much of which can be attributed to quite a bit of roster turnover. They lost both of their goaltenders and four-year legend Marcus Basara from last year’s team, leaving them with holes on both sides of the ice.
UAF only has two players with double digit points and both are underclassmen -freshman Steven Jandric leads the team with 11 points and sophomore Kylar Hope is right behind with 10.
They have a solid defensive corps led by the inspirational senior captain Justin Woods (more on his story here) and junior Zach Frye.
Swedish redshirt-sophomore Anton Martinsson has played the lion’s share of games in net, although fellow sophomore Niko DellaMaggiore did win his first start against NMU last Saturday and thus could factor into this weekend’s games against MTU. Martinsson has been serviceable, if not elite, in his first season playing college hockey. As has been a common theme with so many of Tech’s opponents this year, there is uncertainty about who they will see between the pipes this weekend.
Keys to the Game
- Understand the dire situation. A common discussion this weekend among MTU fans was that some fans do not have realistic expectations. Recent success has made fans believe they should be pushing for an at-large bid every season, which is not necessarily realistic. I tend to agree, but it has clouded the real problem: The Huskies are playing themselves out of serious WCHA playoff contention. Now is the time to get desperate, not two months from now. They need six points this weekend as badly as they have ever needed them in recent years.
- Take advantage of their opponent’s awful special teams. Not only does Alaska have the second-worse power play in the nation, but they have a bottom-third penalty kill. With MTU’s relatively strong man advantage, they should be able to capitalize when the Nanooks take penalties (12th most penalized team in the nation).
- Stop playing down to a team’s level. I fully understand that UAA’s goaltender Olivier Mantha had himself a heck of a weekend, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that Michigan Tech still should have beat the Seawolves soundly. They seemed content to play a close game that allowed UAA to prevent any sort of style that would go in Tech’s favor. When the Huskies could not find that decisive goal, UAA effectively won the weekend. It was frustrating to watch, but can be reversed if MTU takes their speed and talent and runs over an Alaska team still trying to figure themselves out.
It gets harder and harder to pick wins for the Huskies, but I am keeping faith this weekend especially since they will have had over a week to adjust to the Alaskan climate and time change. I expect MTU understand that they need every one of these points this weekend in order to stay in the hunt for home ice and push away any worries of missing the playoffs. Michigan Tech sweeps, 4-2, 3-0.