It doesn’t happen very often, but the Huskies’ conquest of Minnesota State has left the Old Dog almost (but not quite) at a loss for words. Oh, there’s plenty to say about the upset triumph—and there’s a juicy controversy brewing about ticket sales at Northern Michigan for the upcoming championship game—but what can be said that hasn’t already been emailed, phoned, tweeted, shared on Discord, and uttered in bars wherever Tech fans congregate?
Let’s recap some of the clichés that have been floated around. How about “underdog?” No one, and I mean no one that I know who’s a serious observer of college hockey picked the Huskies to upset the Mavericks, particularly with the series set in Mankato. Christopher Boulay of College Hockey News didn’t make a pick but did suggest Tech could hang with the Mavs. Jack Hittinger, who blogs about the WCHA for USCHO, predicted an MSU sweep. Even THG’s Nathaniel Brose agreed with Hittinger—although the always-astute Brose added something approaching clairvoyance: “if Tech can find a way to extend the weekend to Sunday, I think game 3 stays close enough to keep everyone on the edge of their seat.” Indeed!
What about me? The Old Dog hasn’t ventured into the prediction game in this space, but I was resigned to howling about a season that might have been. I had to throw the column I was planning in the trash—and overcome the stunned and joyous feeling I had Sunday night when Jake Jackson smoked the series winner past Connor LaCouvee during the first overtime period.
Here’s another one that no one said but could have easily used: “much maligned Husky goaltending.” Many fans have badmouthed Tech’s netminding throughout the season. But this past weekend, Devin Kero turned in a sparkling game Friday, continuing his late season hot streak. Again, though, the bad luck that’s plagued Kero during his time at Tech struck again, and he was injured during the loss.
Enter Packy Munson. During the season, I started to think that Patrick Munson’s actual nickname was “DammitPacky” because I heard that so many times. And when it was announced that he would start Saturday because Kero was hurt, it seemed like just one more lesion in an injury-filled year that would doom Tech and cause the season to end Saturday night. So what did Packy do? He turned in his best game of the season—and then topped that with an absolute stonewalling of the best offense in the country on Sunday. It’s no exaggeration to say that Munson stole that game for the Huskies.
People tend to forget parts of the Munson story. He had a superb freshman year at Vermont, posting a 2.37 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage for a mediocre Catamount team. Then he transferred to Denver, but sat on the bench the entire season—and had to watch as the Pioneers won the NCAA championship, including an opening round victory over Michigan Tech.
Then, when Tanner Jaillet, the 2017 Mike Richter (best NCAA goalie) award winner last year, surprised everyone by returning for 2018, Munson was looking for a place where he wouldn’t have to sit on the bench. Most fans forget that Tech was actively trying to recruit LaCouvee, who was a graduate transfer from Boston University. When LaCouvee chose Minnesota State, Munson was a bit of a consolation prize for the Huskies.
Of course, Tech fans saw Munson as a savior, a replacement for Angus “Beef” Redmond, who’d help Tech get to the NCAA tournament last season. And, early on, Munson was good but not great. As the games piled up, he was just average or worse most of the time. What we all tended to forget was that he hadn’t really played in game conditions for an entire year, and he may well have lost some of his edge during that layoff.
Against Minnesota State, though, Munson showed us what he was really capable of. He was square to the puck on almost every shot. He controlled rebounds. He avoided some of his previous ill-advised stick handling adventures. Finally, he made at least four “how did he come up with that one” saves, and, in two extremely close games, every single save was crucial.
How about “can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” I saw several things from Them Dogs over the weekend that we hadn’t seen much of before. The first was a different approach to getting the puck out of their own end. Over the first 39 games, the Huskies had stubbornly tried to make precision passes and get clean breakouts no matter what. Too often, short passes morphed into turnovers and more than a couple ended up in the Tech net.
In the semi-finals, the Huskies didn’t give up on smooth breakouts, but they were much more selective. The settled for chipping it out, shooting it off the glass, basically anything they could do to relieve pressure from the Mavericks. MSU still had more zone time than Tech did, but they were thwarted time and again when the Huskies would force them to regroup at center ice. While the Mavs were always pressing, they seemed to get frustrated by Tech’s newly found defensive self-control.
And then there was the matter of penalty discipline. At least for two nights, the Huskies managed to avoid taking unnecessary penalties. On Sunday, things returned to normal, as both teams made a continuous parade to the sin bin during the first two periods, showing that even well-trained Dogs sometimes have accidents, especially when they are Dog Tired.
Tech seemed to have a new trick on the penalty kill, too. On paper, the series should have be a train wreck for Tech. Mankato has one of the top power plays in the country, while Tech is near the bottom in killing off shorthanded situations. In the third and final game, when the Huskies faced seven power plays, they killed six of them. Even more surprising was how they did it. They were aggressive—they challenged MSU all over the ice, a distinct change from the passive way they usually tried to weather the short-handed blues before this series. They still packed it in and blocked a ton of shots, but they were out at the points and pressuring the perimeter much more than they had been earlier in the season. And it worked.
There’s one more thing that needs to be said. Minnesota State is a classy champion in their own right, running away with the McNaughton Cup for the regular season crown. While the series featured physical play and a couple of shoving matches, there were few Mav hits that could be considered cheap or chippy. Coach Mike Hastings had great things to say about the Huskies after each game, and gave Tech full credit for the result. Hastings hated to lose, but he’s a gracious opponent, win or lose.
Finally, the Maverick TV team of Don Westphal and Dan MacCarger were critiqued frequently by the Discord Dogs during the long weekend. I’m going to have to differ with my pals on this one, though. Sure, Westphal and MacCarger want their Mavs to win. And they are pretty low-key, particularly when Tech fans compare them with the always-electric Dirk Hembroff. On the other hand, they gave shout-out after shout-out to MTU over the three games. They praised the band and the fans, including the Misfits, who were in the building. They also reminded viewers of the great Michigan Tech hockey heritage. They talked about how Tech was giving the Mavs all they wanted, and, when all was said and done, they made it clear they believed that the better team had won the series.
In this era of trash talking, vitriolic remarks on social media, and a public atmosphere of never conceding anything to anyone, the Old Dog thinks the kind of sportsmanship displayed by both teams over these three incredible nights of hockey is something we can all take pride in.
That’s something to think about as Them Dogs try to finish an unbelievable road warrior run in Marquette this Saturday.