After a much-needed break in their schedule, the Huskies will get back on the ice Friday night against the Alaska Nanooks at the JMac. This will be a critical series for Tech, with only 10 WCHA games left in the season. Sitting in 5th place, Tech is going to be in a real struggle to get home ice in the playoffs.
Where have they been, and what can we expect during the rest of the season? As Joe Shawhan has said, his team is going to be what they are—they aren’t going to be a completely different team after two-thirds of the games have been played. Shawhan continues to preach improvement, though, and we’ll be looking for some things to get better in the final stretch run.
The Huskies started out with a close loss against a highly-rated Wisconsin team, and followed that with their only true sweep weekend at the Ice Breaker tournament, beating both Union and Minnesota-Duluth. They then took five points from Lake Superior State at the Soo, but the first signs that this team might struggle at times started to emerge in the second game of that series, as the Lakers frustrated the Huskies up-tempo game and forced a 2-2 regulation tie. Jake Lucchini won the shootout, but it was clear that LSSU had figured out how to play against Them Dogs.
It was more of the same next week with Alabama-Huntsville in Houghton. The Huskies were forced to come from behind to win on Friday, but on Saturday, the Chargers applied the same kind of counter-punching defense that the Lakers had used, and the Chargers gained a split. The Huskies then went into a bit of a tailspin, as they were swept by Minnesota State and picked up only one point in a series with Bowling Green. Once again, physical play and tight checking disrupted the Huskies and left the squad looking like the clearly inferior team in both series.
They managed an up-and-down split with Northern Michigan on the following weekend. In the first game in Houghton, the Huskies were flying, and the Wildcats tried to skate with them. Bad choice: Tech dominated the game. Going back to Marquette, NMU applied what has been the standard prescription for Tech’s flow game—clog the passing lanes, prevent offensive entries, and force the game to be played along the boards in both ends. And, as the previous four series showed, Tech just couldn’t adjust and had to settle for a split.
From there, it was off to Alaska. In the first series against Anchorage, the Seawolves held both games close and took four points with shootout wins. Up in Fairbanks, the Nanooks used their own brand of smothering play to make things hard for the Huskies. On Friday, Tech snapped back from a 3-0 deficit to get a 5-4 two point overtime win. Perhaps frustrated after being penned in game after game, the Huskies blew out the Nanooks 5-1 to end up with a five point weekend.
Returning home, Them Dogs split with Ferris State and again took five points from Lake State. In what was starting to look like the movie “Groundhog Day,” where Bill Murray relives the same day over and over again in slightly different ways, Tech again saw a steady diet of grind-it-out defensive hockey, and, despite superior talent, never seemed to be able to get into the flow that worked so well in the first few games of the season.
After the holiday break, the Great Lakes and Ice Vegas tournaments followed the same script yet again. When Tech was rolling, they took care of Michigan State and Boston College. But when the roadblocks went up against Bowling Green and Arizona State, the Huskies couldn’t finish either championship game.
To his credit, Shawhan stood up and admitted as much—this team has trouble when they can’t skate and pass freely. He didn’t hide behind fatigue from four games in six nights, or the flu bug that affected his team. In both his post-game interviews and his Monday radio show with Dirk Hembroff, he acknowledged that most of the goals that BG and ASU scored weren’t really scoring chances. They were a result of turnovers and non-scoring chances that often resulted from too much individual effort at critical moments.
From the Old Dog’s perch, we’ve seen a lot of exciting and entertaining hockey from this team. We’ve also watched way too many frustrating moments. None of the goaltenders have been able to step forward and play well for more than a game or so, and many of the “non-scoring chance” goals have been on shots that would have been stopped with the kind of goaltending we’ve gotten used to over the past six seasons.
There have been gorgeous highlight reel goals again and again, matched against full periods where the Huskies rarely seem to get into the dirty areas in front of the opposing goalie. The way the game is played today, odd man rushes are rare, blocked shots are common, and a failure to get traffic in the slot or to shovel messy rebounds into the net is going to make it difficult to win most nights. So, some of the high skill players, like Lucchini and Jake Jackson, have looked great when the play is fluid. At other times, matchups and slow-puck defensive schemes have made it hard for them to display their best.
At the same time, blue line play has been strong. When MTU had trouble getting any points in the WCHA standings at the end of October and early November, there were times when the defensive play was sloppy—lots of lost battles in the corners combined with too many penalties.
But things have gotten better. With four first-year skaters playing defense in Vegas, Tech didn’t give up many even-man chances in either tournament. That certainly shows strength, but when a sloppy shot finds its way over the goal line, you can see the air go out of the Huskies’ balloon at times. No defense will be completely air tight, and Tech has to be able to overcome the occasional mistakes that will be made.
If you listen to Shawhan, the coaching staff has been constantly trying to get the Huskies to play with more grit on offense. There are some players who are getting the message. Gavin Gould has been a fearless dynamo, battling for every opportunity he can find, and creating chances when none exist. Dylan Steman has forces his way into the crease time and time again, and Brent Baltus has often been there, too. Mitch Reinke has been perhaps Tech’s best player overall, guarding his own end with skill and moxie and bringing it on the offensive end, too.
In the remaining 10 WCHA games—plus a rematch with Arizona State in Houghton—Tech will face nothing but defense-first teams. After Fairbanks comes to town, they have road series with Ferris State and Bowling Green. They return home for Bemidji State at Winter Carnival, followed by Sun Devil rematches. They end up with a home-and-home with Northern.
Every team left on the schedule except Bemidji State has faced the Huskies. They know what to expect, and they’ve had more than a little success by stifling Shawhan’s team with every tactic they can bring to bear. Bemidji State plays the same way, and you can bet they’ve watched plenty of video and know they can’t afford to get into a speed game with Tech. Back in the middle of November, I asked whether the Huskies can win ugly. That question is still on the table, and if they can’t, they won’t have home ice in the WCHA playoffs.
Them Dogs need solid goaltending, offensive perseverance and bravery, and a continuation of the defensive play we’ve seen lately. Meat Loaf said that two out of three ain’t bad, but that’s unlikely to be enough for Tech. They need all of these things, every single night. The Old Dog will be watching each game from his recliner in Texas. I just hope I don’t feel that another beer is more fun than watching any of these games.