It was not a pretty weekend in Houghton. The Huskies started poorly and didn’t finish well as they were swept by Alaska 3-2 and 2-1. For the Old Dog’s first trip to see Tech play at the John MacInnes Student Ice Arena in 17 years, it was a huge disappointment. More to the point, it was how the Huskies played that made the losses even harder to swallow.
They were out-skated for most of both games. They rarely won battles for loose pucks down in their offensive end. They didn’t muster many shots until late in the second period Saturday night. In fact, on Friday night, Them Dogs had only seven (yes, seven) shots on goal through two periods. On Saturday, they had only 12 through two periods. They were zero for thirteen on the powerplay over the weekend and didn’t even notch a single shot on goal in about half of those powerplays.
All of this added up to something that gave the crowds at the JMac very little to cheer about. To be honest, it’s not easy to know what to make of this. Is this the first sign of a disastrous season or is it just a blip on the radar—a large and ugly blip to be sure—with a lot of hockey left to be played?
Let’s start with one thing we need to recognize, though. Alaska is a much better team than most people (including the Old Dog) thought they might be. They have great team speed, and that’s partly why they won most of the battles for loose pucks. It’s also why they back-checked Them Dogs so well and that’s why Tech’s shot totals were so low.
The Nanooks did take a lot of penalties, but Tech couldn’t do much because they won so few of the face-offs to start each powerplay. They were 28-34 on draws Friday and did better on Saturday (with a slight 30-29 edge) but those numbers are misleading. UAF won most of the key draws in their own end more than a few in the Huskies end. Even when the Huskies did win the draw, the Nanooks often negated that with a quick steal.
That’s one of the reasons the powerplay was ineffective; Tech rarely got control after the first draw in the Nanooks’ end after a penalty call. UAF would promptly dump it down to the other end, and then the Huskies would have to force an entry to get the PP set up. But the Nanooks had that one covered, too. They set up three across at the blue line and Tech repeatedly tried to carry the puck into the zone. They weren’t successful very often. When they eventually dumped the puck into the corners or behind the goal, UAF beat them to the puck more often than not.
Not all of that was poor play by Tech, though. Alaska played very well, and they were highly motivated. As I watched them go off the ice on Saturday after the sweep, you could hear them yelling. The tone was clearly one of revenge and satisfaction, and there was a clear fire of emotional release—not just joy—coming from their celebration. Some of that was probably a result of overcoming Tech for the first time in a long time. But you also have to wonder if part of that passion was due to the way the core of the WCHA has effectively jilted UAF in their announcement that they’d leave the WCHA and start a new conference.
In his post-game interviews each night, Coach Joe Shawhan talked about the growth that a young team needs to have to reach their potential. As the interviews blared over loudspeakers while the Old Dog and Mrs. Dog headed to our car, I was thinking to myself, “He’s going to have to feed them Miracle-Gro to get the level of growth that’s will be necessary to compete in the WCHA.”
Let’s be very blunt: if Tech plays that way in two weeks when they return to the ice down in Bowling Green, they’ll get swept again, and this time it won’t be in two one goal games, games that were not really as close as the scores suggested. At the same time, the Falcons were pretty disappointing over the weekend, too.
Bowling Green was the host of this year’s Ice Breaker Tournament and the games were played just up the road in Toledo. On the first night, BGSU lost 3-2 in overtime to Rochester Institute of Technology, an Atlantic Hockey member. RIT scored with just under five minutes remaining to force the extra period and take down the Falcons. In the consolation game the following evening, they never led, as Western Michigan blitzed the Falcons with three straight second period goals and WMU finished with a 5-2 victory.
On Shawhan’s Monday radio show with Dirk Hembroff, he repeatedly talked about “hard” issues—playing hard, going to the hard areas. By one count, he used the word “hard” or “hardness” more than 20 times during the show. He didn’t descend into some of the odd comments he made last year and instead tried to frame his comments around the need to improve. That’s an upgrade for Shawhan over last year, but the team play needs to step up even more than Shawhan needed to develop his ability to deal with the media.
Unless Alaska turns out to be good enough to gain home ice in the WCHA playoff race, Tech will need to be much, much better than they were in their first home series. Things get much tougher from this point on.
If the Huskies play that way in the next few weeks, the really “hard” thing to do will be for the Old Dog to watch them flounder on FloHockey.