With the Huskies split in Bowling Green last weekend now in the rearview mirror, it’s a good time to take another early dive into Tech’s hockey prospects for the 2019-2020 season. Something seemed different in Saturday night’s game, and it wasn’t just winning. There may have been something more.
During the opening road series, Them Dogs were fortunate to pick up a sweep. Robert Morris played the Huskies straight up in the first game, and both goaltenders made a ton of big saves. The Huskies managed to get the win in overtime on a short-handed two-on-one from Alec Broetzman, but RMU could have just as easily won that contest. On the second night, RMU tried their second tier goaltenders, and it didn’t work out well. Tech certainly looked a lot better in that game, but four relatively easy first period goals in a 7-0 win were likely misleading about this team’s character and skills. In sum, it was too easy.
The following weekend, Tech returned to Houghton and was totally outclassed by Alaska. They were slower than the Nanooks, unable to retain control of the puck, didn’t get many shots on goal, and generally on their heels in two one-goal losses, games that weren’t really as close as the score suggests.
Back on the road Friday night, the BGSU Falcons made the Huskies look bad in 3-1 victory, and in fact there were a lot of similarities to the lost weekend against Alaska. There were a couple of differences, though. The Falcons were three for three on the powerplay, something that hadn’t been a problem against the Nanooks the week before. And that was all of their scoring; they didn’t score any even strength goals. Second, Them Dogs actually managed to win draws and get a reasonable number of shots on goal, two things that weren’t present against UAF. But when Tech had the extra man—and Bowling Green takes a LOT of penalties with very aggressive, even chippy play—the Huskies could do almost nothing. And that was disturbing, because it was the same thing they’d exhibited against UAF.
So, if you don’t count the seven goal explosion against RMU’s weak goaltending, or the overtime winner in the first game, Tech had scored five goals in four games. One of those was on a bizarre bounce off the boards at Bowling Green, one came on a breakaway when a defender blew a tire, and one was with an extra attacker in the final minute of the second UAF game. The Huskies hadn’t mounted much in the way of a sustained attack in four of their first five games.
To be brutally frank, it was starting to look like a return to the way Tech played under Jamie Russell. Try to play solid defense, pray for shut-down goaltending, and beg for chances when (or even if) your foe made terrible errors. For those of us who suffered through the dismal thirty years between the John MacInnes and Mel Pearson eras, a three decade horror show when not one coach had a .500 record for his tenure—and three coaches were barely able to win more than 25% of their games—this was an ugly sign.
It wasn’t quite the Exodus, but as a passionate fan, that period gave the Old Dog just the smallest taste of how Moses and the Israelites might have felt. It was a desert, and a bleak one at that.
But Saturday was not the same old stuff. After a scoreless first period in which neither team really had done much offensively, the Huskies burst out of their shell in the second period. They outscored the Falcons 3-1, with Parker Saretsky getting the first goal during a scramble in the crease, and Tommy Parrotino getting the next two. His second goal was a pure power move, as Parrotino drove hard around a defender and put it in the net from the slot. Tech even killed a penalty, which they hadn’t been able to do Friday.
Parrotino finished his natural hat-trick to open the third period with a nice tip-in for a powerplay goal—and the powerplay had been missing in action in the first five games this year. Bowling Green did manage to pop in a 6 on 4 powerplay goal after pulling their goalie late in the game, but other than a bit of mild white knuckle suspense in the last minute, Tech certainly looked like a solid team, playing a great road game in a very hostile arena against one of the better teams in the WCHA.
So, what is Team 99 really like? Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? The bad team that lost three straight, and looked terrible while losing? Or the team that blasted Robert Morris and then handled all of the adversity that Bowling Green could throw at them Saturday?
That was certainly on my mind Monday as I listened to Joe Shawhan’s weekly one-on-one with Dirk Hembroff. Shawhan gave one of the most thoughtful and composed reviews of his team I’ve heard from him. In fact, it suggested that Shawhan seemed to understand that he was a bit out of control at times last season, and you could hear that he was measured in his responses to the questions posed by Hembroff. His bubbly, good-hearted Yooper nature was still there, but he didn’t appear to be shooting from the hip the way he had in the past.
Shawhan made a number of solid points about this year’s team, notions that had the ring of truth about them. To start, he reminded everyone that this is a very young team. To reinforce that, he noted that all but one of the Huskies’ fifteen goals this season have been scored by freshmen or sophomores. He also pointed out that the Alaska series wasn’t quite what it appeared to be—because of the Alaskan schools’ special circumstances, they are allowed more pre-season coaching time than any of the other 58 NCAA Division I programs. Moreover, they’d been tested severely by No. 1 ranked Denver the week before, and had gained a tremendous level of confidence in the process.
The other picture Shawhan painted was that of a team that was just starting to grow and mature. During the phone-in question and answer section of the show, Shawhan admitted that the second half of last season was something of a “lost weekend” (my words, not his). The lack of harmony in the dressing room, the unhappiness about playing time, the oversensitivity about criticism—things he admitted last year with Hembroff on the air—were something Shawhan had never faced before as a coach. And the result was last year’s players, now this year’s core, didn’t grow and develop the way they should have. Shawhan put that on himself, not the players, and it was certainly a mark of Shawhan’s “growth” (that word again) as a head coach.
Shawhan seems to feel this young team is starting to get that growth, and Exhibit A is the way they played Saturday night. Really, if you step back, two bad games against a better-than-most-of-us-realized Alaska team, and an inability to handle Bowling Green’s powerplay on a single night in their arena don’t necessarily tell us what this year’s team can or perhaps might do this season, nor does a blowout win in Pittsburgh and a great road victory against a ranked team.
After all, Tech is 3-3 after six games. Is Shawhan correct that these freshmen and sophomores are just starting to hit their stride? Or are the most pessimistic fans correct, who think Shawhan’s emphasis on defense-first is stifling some very good offensive talent, closer to the mark?
We’ll know more in a couple of weeks after Them Dogs play the Hall of Fame Game in Grand Forks against the 14th ranked North Dakota Fighting Hawks—and then take on #2 Minnesota State at the JMac in the Keweenaw.