The first round of the WCHA playoffs takes place in Bemidji when the Michigan Tech Huskies (17-15-5) face the Bemidji State Beavers (16-12-8) in a best-of-three showdown. The pair plays each other in the playoffs for the first time. They split a pair of games in Houghton less than a month ago, with both teams dominating one night.
Michigan Tech enters the weekend after an exciting weekend battle with the WCHA’s second-seeded Northern Michigan. Both games were settled by a single goal, so if nothing else the Huskies know that they can play with one of the best teams in the conference. Saturday night’s 3-2 win was a strange one with all five goals scored on the man advantage.
This weekend was one that inspires confidence heading into the playoffs for a few reasons. First, goaltender Devin Kero has definitively won the starting goaltender job after yet another consistent weekend in net. After searching for that consistency in net all year, it has been nice to see it the last few weeks, regardless of whether Kero’s play continues this weekend.
Another reason to have faith in Tech’s ability to steal a series win at Bemidji is the prominence of the first line. We have sung the praises of guys like Joel L’Esperance and Jake Lucchini in this space previously, but this week it was first line Winger Brent Baltus with a pair of goals to get to double digits on the year. Against a team as stingy defensively as BSU is, Tech’s best players are going to need to play up to their level.
Tech may also be getting Bemidji at a pretty good time. After a strong mid-winter where the Beavers went 9-2-1 from Dec. 15th through the end of January, they had a rough February with a record of 2-4-2. They have won just one of the last five games, a 2-1 win at home over Alaska. In none of the last five have they scored more than two goals: the last time they surpassed two goals was their win over Michigan Tech on February 9th. They are certainly limping into the postseason right now.
For as woeful as the offense has been, the defense has not diminished. They allowed two or fewer goals per game in all but one of their last nine (MTU’s 4-2 win), and are 11th in the nation on the season in goals allowed at 2.36 goals per game. The leader of that effort is senior goaltender Michael Bitzer, who is looking to finish his great collegiate career with his first trip to the NCAA tournament. He will certainly be motivated to make a deep run in the WCHA tournament, especially considering his disappointing play in last year’s postseason.
On the front end, look forwards Adam Brady, Charlie Combs, and Jay Dickman to be factors, especially on the powerplay. They have combined for fifteen power play goals on the year and considering the trouble Tech has on the kill, these guys will likely be on the scoresheet if Bemidji wins.
Statistically, Bemidji probably has a slight leg up. They kill penalties far better—88% to 78%—and their power play is a percentage point better as well—20.4% to 19.5%. Their offense and defense numbers are effectively inverse, with Tech scoring 0.4 more goals per game but allowing exactly as many per game more. This series is very likely to be low-scoring and close most of the way.
Keys to the Game
- Do not give the referees a reason to take over the game. If it wasn’t clear already, BSU’s best chance of winning this series is by having it be a special teams battle. While they can only control refs’ decisions so much, playing smart and disciplined hockey will go a long way.
- Get to Bitzer early. Not to be forgotten is that BSU’s star netminder was pulled halfway through the game the last time they faced Michigan Tech after allowing four goals on 14 shots. He rarely faces even 30 shots in a game with this strong defensive unit (only 7 times in 35 games) so generating chances early and often seems to be the way to beat him.
- Stay in Bemidji’s head at home. For some reason, the Beavers have had a really hard time at home this year with a record of 6-8-4. In their last four home games, they have scored four total goals, including being shut out twice. Struggling so much at home is noticeable, they are aware of it. Winning the first game would only further that doubt. This is not the worst matchup in the world for Michigan Tech for this reason.
This is going to be a close series, indicative of the 4/5 matchup that it is. As much as Michigan Tech has been unpredictable and hard to trust, one could say the same for Bemidji State. Also consider Bemidji’s playoff failures and Tech’s ability to get up for big games – last year’s playoffs, this year’s Ice Breaker Tournament – and it is not a reach to give Tech a good shot of winning the series. It will come down to special teams and Tech’s ability to stay out of the box. I think they do just enough to frustrate Bemidji and take advantage of their historic playoff failures. Tech wins 2-1, Bemidji wins 3-1, Tech wins 3-2.
Cover photo credit Ryan Johnson.