The Michigan Tech Huskies’ (21-16-5) season comes to a head when they travel to Marquette for the WCHA Championship game on Saturday night against the Northern Michigan Wildcats (25-14-3). In a year dominated by Minnesota State, it really is amazing that the two U.P. schools with first-year head coaches ended up in this position. Now we get one of the best rivalries in the game in a winner-take-all game: What more could anyone want?
Both teams finished off their opponents last week in game 3 and in overtime. They will now need to overcome that emotional victory and look ahead to claiming the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Michigan Tech is coming off what was likely their best defensive weekends of the year. Against the nation’s number one offense, they held MSU to five goals in three games. The biggest part of this was the play of goaltender Packy Munson in games two and three. While Devin Kero played well in Friday’s loss, his injury forced the inconsistent Munson into action and he reacted in the best possible way: holding Minnesota State to three goals on 75 shots in two victories.
All of this not to say that Munson was bailing out the team both nights. Rather, the team pulled out their best shot blocking effort, and by far their best penalty killing effort. For a team that struggled so mightily on the PK all season, they bent but did not break in killing six of seven penalties in game 3 (including one in overtime).
The offense obviously did not have their best weekend, something to be expected against a strong defensive team with the conference’s best goalie, but they created offense with relatively few shots. Assuming that they will have more time and space on Saturday, guys like Gavin Gould, Joel L’Esperance, and Jake Lucchini should be able to make some magic.
MTU saw Northern less than a month ago, with each team winning their home game by a single goal. NMU has been exceptional at home this season – 17-4-0 – so this game being on their side of the U.P. is a real advantage for them. They locked up this championship spot off the stick of scorer Troy Loggins. He is just one of a few in a high-powered top of the lineup. He has 23 goals and 47 points, leading scorer Robbie Payne has 24 goals, and Adam Rockwood leads the team with 48 points thanks to his incredible 40 assists, tops in the nation.
Once again, the Huskies will face goaltender Atte Tolvanen, a solid goaltender in his third year at Northern. He doesn’t see many shots behind one of the better defensive teams in the league, and does a pretty good stopping those that he does see. Tolvanen has not allowed more than three goals in a game since December 30th in Mankato.
As we noted last month, these are relatively similar teams statistically. MTU has scored one more goal than NMU this year and allowed just seven more. Their power play is within a percentage point of each other. What separates these teams has mostly been goaltending—which may not be in Northern’s favor if Munson plays well again, penalty kill and top line scoring. Northern has consistently been able to rely on one of their elite scorers to pick up wins for them, which is why they have hovered around the pairwise bubble all season. While they need to win Saturday to make the tournament, a win would put them inside the top 16. Michigan Tech of course needs the win to make the tournament, where they would be the 15 or 16 overall seed depending on results in Atlantic Hockey.
Keys to the Game
- Keep the crowd quiet early. We really do not need to go into the whole crowd/ticketing situation here, but it clearly is expected to be a packed house. With most of the crowd being students and locals, many die-hards from out of town have been iced out, leaving a crowd that could be easily silenced if things go wrong. We know the Misfits and the band will be there: they would be happy to fill that gap in noise.
- Packy must stay hot. It is true that there is nothing more impactful in playoff hockey than a hot goalie. Munson has the ability to make everyone forget his disappointing year by playing the Huskies into the national tournament. Consistency has been the missing link for him this year. If he has actually put it together, Tech will be hard to beat on Saturday.
- Keep the emotions even. In a game like this it is easy to get over emotional. Taking bad penalties, a poorly timed pinch at the blue line, those sorts of things stem from emotions overtaking rational thought. Tech was in this exact situation a year ago and that experience could be invaluable.
This might be the hardest game of the year to predict. Tech is coming off of their best weekend of the year so either that will fill them with confidence or they will still be riding that high. Northern threw away a late lead in game three but dominated overtime, showing the type of fortitude that a team needs to win in the playoffs. Either team is more than capable of winning, and both are deserving of representing the WCHA in the tournament along with Minnesota State.
If this game was in Houghton, I would think differently. But NMU is so dominant at home and is just slightly better than Tech in every area of the game. I’m willing to bet it is a one-goal game, and it could easily take more than 60 minutes to decide. Northern Michigan wins, 3-2.
Cover photo credit Rob Gilreath.