Well, here we are folks: the end of the regular season. The Michigan Tech Huskies (16-14-5) wrap up the schedule with a home-and-home against UP rival Northern Michigan (20-11-3). MTU is coming off a weekend full of distractions, namely the fight between Head Coach Joe Shawhan and ASU’s former club coach and current head coach Greg Powers. Northern had a relatively quiet weekend, sweeping Alaska at home while allowing only two goals in the two games.
These two teams are in very different places with different importance levied on this game. Tech knows where they stand: they will finish fifth in the conference, go to Bemidji State for the playoffs, and need to win the conference tournament to make the NCAA tournament. For Northern, it is a bit more complicated. They have an outside chance to catch Minnesota State for first place, but more realistically they are playing to hold off BGSU for second place. Not to be forgotten is that NMU sits 16th in the Pairwise. According to Jim Dahl’s College Hockey Ranked, NMU will move into the tournament field with a sweep, probably at 14 or 15, but would fall outside the top 15 with anything less. If they do not want to have to rely on winning the WCHA tournament, a sweep here is probably needed. With all of that being said, NMU clearly has enough incentive to make this their best weekend of the year, but so does Tech. They have the ability to ruin their rival’s season with a win or two this weekend.
Tech is playing solid team defense over the last few games coupled with strong play by goaltender Devin Kero. This has led them to play far more competitive games since they were blown out by Bowling Green 7-2 on February 2nd. The offense has also come alive in their last three wins, scoring 4, 5, and 5 goals in those games. Junior Jake Lucchini carries a six-game point streak into the weekend and is playing his best hockey. Joel L’Esperance added two points against ASU and has seven points in five games. There are ever so slight flashes are this team playing up to its full potential, a potential that can beat any team in the conference.
On the flip side, the things that have held Tech back all season still will not go away. No one will ever trust the goaltending this season, even though Kero has had a few good games of late. The penalty kill is still porous, sitting under 80% constantly this year. Even though the power play has improved, it is still middle-of-the-pack nationally. With nothing to make them stand out or steal wins, it really is no surprise that they sit right around .500.
The funny thing is, Northern is not all that different. Their power play scores at essentially the same rate. Their penalty kill is better, but not world-beating: their 83% rate is 5 points better than Tech’s. They have balanced scoring like Tech does, with a few guys scoring a point per game and a bunch scoring about a point every two. They score at almost exactly the same rate as Tech and allow goals at almost exactly the same rate. So why are they sitting on the very edge of at-large contention and Tech is wallowing in mediocrity? The easy answer is that NMU is a ridiculous 9-2 in 1-goal games. Compare that to Tech’s 6-6 record, and that alone explains a great deal of the disparity. Add in the fact that Northern has never lost a game when leading after one period while Tech has lost twice in such instances, and you essentially account for the whole difference. I would also lend some credit to goaltender Atte Tolvanen, who has not been incredible but has at least been consistent enough to hold the job all season. There is a lot to be said for stability in net.
Keys to the Game
- Frustrate NMU. Northern will enter this weekend well aware of what is at stake. That lends to holding the stick just a little bit tighter and tempers being just a little bit shorter. Tech can take advantage of that if they limit shots, draw penalties, and force the Wildcats to play a harder game than they want to.
- Keep the hottest guys going. Tech’s best shot of doing damage in March is guys like L’Esperance, Lucchini, and Kero stealing games. Regardless of the results this weekend, confidence and getting guys going will be the most important thing ahead of the matchup with Bemidji.
- Salvage the season with wins against the cross-peninsula rival. This season are been one to be forgotten, but ruining NMU’s postseason hopes and winning the season series would make up for it slightly.
The two teams split their first series this year with both games being blowouts, but I think it will be a lot tighter this weekend. NMU has made a habit of playing close games and I think we see more of that this weekend. This seems like a weekend split considering how much is on the line. Each team wins at home, NMU wins 4-2, Tech wins 3-2.
Photo credit Travis Pierce.