After blasting through the WCHA playoffs with five—count ‘em—five road wins, the Huskies will be heading for Bridgeport, Connecticut. And Joe Shawhan will be leading Them Dogs into the NCAA tournament against his old coach, Jeff Jackson, and the Big Ten champion Notre Dame team.
After this season’s insane ups, downs, more downs, and incredible ups, Tech has made it back to the Big Skate for the second straight year and the third time in four years. That’s elite territory, and the way Them Dogs are playing right now makes me confident that they will give the Irish all they want on Friday afternoon.
At one point this season, I compared watching the Huskies to riding a defective emotional elevator. It could go in either direction, abruptly and in completely unpredictable ways. It started early. They played well at Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame game, but lost by a goal. Then they shocked many of us by winning the Ice Breaker tournament in Duluth. Still on the road, they took five of six points from Lake Superior, and Them Dogs looked to be off and running.
In their first home series, they struggled with Huntsville, barely getting a split. Who ordered that? Then it was back on the road, this time at Minnesota State—and they were in both games almost to the end before penalties and sloppy play gave the Mavs the sweep. Then it was on the road again, as Willie would say, this time to Bowling Green where they could only eke out one point. They then stepped up and got a home-and-home split with Northern Michigan, and it would have been encouraging except that they were very flat in Marquette on Saturday night in that series.
Next up was the annual Alaska tour—still more road time—and they simply did not play well against Anchorage, a team destined for dead last in the Pairwise Ratings for the entire year. They got two ties, but lost the shoot-out for the extra point in the first game and then lost in the 3 on 3 overtime in the next. Up in Fairbanks, they fell behind 3-0 on Friday before something clicked, and they roared back to win in regular overtime for three points. Saturday, they were in total control and added another sorely needed WCHA win to their resume.
Finally returning to the JMac as December opened, they split with Ferris State—one good game and one bad one, and then followed that with another five point series haul against Lake State. After the holiday break, the Huskies went back on the road for the Great Lakes Invitational and Ice Vegas tournaments. They beat Michigan State in the first night of the GLI, but then laid a goose egg against Bowling Green on the second night.
The repeated that act in Vegas, jumping all over Boston College and then, almost inexplicably, losing to Arizona State in the finals. At that point, a lot of Tech’s very loyal and passionate fans were starting to question just what was going on with this edition of Husky hockey. In the only real prediction the Old Dog has attempted, I had said in my very first THG column that the road ahead would be bumpy and there wouldn’t be one easy series all year.
I had no idea it would be this bumpy. But there were many things going on that were easy to lose sight of. The goalie-go-round was spinning at full speed, as none of the Husky netminders seemed to be able to string together more than one or two solid games. The team had logged a ton of miles with a very difficult road schedule.
Then there were injuries. Keegan Ford was lost for the season before GLI. Devin Kero was hurt just as he started playing well, Packy Munson played hurt when he shouldn’t have, and Brent Baltus had started slowly, still getting his game back after his serious illness during the previous season. Jake Jackson missed some time, and as the second half of the season unfolded, there were more injuries.
Mitch Reinke went down for protracted period. Baltus also missed several games. Alex Gillies is still out of the lineup with an injury, and, near the end, Seamus Donohue missed two games, and Kero was hurt again during the WCHA playoffs. With ten freshman getting significant game time, it was hard to develop the kind of consistency we’ve come to expect from Tech for the past five years.
After returning from Lost Wages, they swept Alaska at home. Going Up! Then, they headed downstate to Big Rapids to face Ferris State in a series that could make or break Tech’s drive for home ice during the playoffs. In what was one of the most discouraging weekends of the year, the Huskies surrendered four power play goals and one short-handed goal, as the Bulldogs used their pipsqueak sized ice surface to maximum advantage for a sweep. The Old Dog was whimpering after that happened, and I felt like the emotional elevator cable had snapped and we were free-falling.
The next weekend, at Bowling Green, the Falcons smacked the Huskies right between the eyes on Friday, piling it on in a 7-2 victory. Going down again. Then the elevator flipped the “Surprise!” switch, and Tech controlled the Saturday game 4-0 for their first win against BGSU in five tries—and they did it with a lineup that didn’t even dress the full complement allowed because of injuries.
Back home for Winter Carnival, they had a complete second period meltdown on Friday against Bemidji State, something that had plagued Them Dogs for much of the season. The Beavers took the game 4-2, an outcome that all but guaranteed Tech would have to skate away from home for any and all playoff games. On Saturday, the elevator went “boing-boing-boing” and Tech blew the Beavers away with a great second period…and won the total goal MacInnes Cup.
Of course, it was more of the same the next weekend, as Arizona State, showing that they are a legitimate D1 program, outscored Tech on Friday before the Huskies bounced back on Saturday. The second game ended with confrontations on the ice, and even the coaches got involved in pushing and shoving.
All that was left was the final home-and-home with NMU. The games had no real significance for the WCHA standings; the Cats were locked in for second place and Them Dogs were going to finish fifth no matter what. But it was still Northern-Tech and no one was backing down. And NMU needed to sweep to get a better Pairwise rating. On Friday, Northern tiptoed to a 2-1 win that could have gone either way, and Tech returned serve on Saturday, winning another tight one at the JMac.
And you know, I started to feel that the elevator was going up, still a bit jerky, but no more downward movement. Next up: the WCHA playoffs. Although the first series at Bemidji was the craziest bit of up-and-down-and down-and-up of all, the two victories were huge. Once the Huskies took care of business in Mankato, I felt like I was on an express elevator in a skyscraper, going up so fast that my ears popped.
And then we reached the 87th floor in Marquette, and Greyson Reitmeier’s swat from the crease opened the elevator door, revealing a stunning view of triumph and historic accomplishment.
But the ride isn’t over yet. It’s time to get back in and press the “UP” button again. We’re still not to the penthouse. It’s a big challenge, with the very best in the country also trying to get to the same place. One floor at a time…
Friday at 3 PM ET in Bridgeport. Notre Dame. Win or lose, it’s been a fun ride, but four more floors would be even better.