After another tough series that saw Tech get swept, this time by the #2 team in the country, Minnesota State, there were several things the Old Dog saw that are worth noting. While it’s never good news to get swept, particularly at home, the Old Dog did note some positives—and some negatives—from the games against the Mavericks and the first nine games in general.
In no particular order, here are some of my takeaways:
-Johnathan Zamaites Nails His Prediction.
In a feat I’ve never seen duplicated before by any other pundit or web site, THG’s own JZ The Seer correctly predicted the outcome of both games in this past weekend series, not only getting the scores correct but the order of the scores as well. His 3-0, 2-1 prediction for the Mavericks was exactly what transpired. Hats off to Johnathan.
-Tech’s Offense Is A Work in Progress.
Let’s start with the statistics. Through nine games, the Huskies have scored a total of 18 goals. If you don’t count the seven-goal outburst in the second game against Robert Morris—which came against two goalies who may not play much again all year—or the overtime goal in the first game against RMU, Them Dogs are averaging a pathetic 1.25 goals per game.
You won’t win very often with that kind of offense.
But all is not lost. It’s really evident that the offense is improving. The Huskies matched the Mavs in shots (31) on Friday, and then were only outshot by 2 (20-18) in Saturday’s game, although they only mustered 3 shots on goal in the third period when they trailed by a single goal. There were plenty of shots at the goal, though—Tech just couldn’t seem to hit the net consistently. The Huskies are also starting to win more draws than their opponents in every game. In the first MSU game, the Mavs held a slight edge, winning 36 while Tech won 35 face-offs. The Huskies won that battle 28-23 in the second game.
Anyone who’s watched all 9 games this year can see that Tech is getting more offensive zone time as they play more, their passing is dramatically improved, and they are getting better scoring chances, too. While their power play isn’t impacting the scoreboard yet, they regularly get set up in the zone and get a few good looks on almost every man advantage. Neither of these were happening earlier in the season.
-Tech’s Played A Murderous Schedule So Far.
If you add the win-loss records of Tech’s five opponents so far, the “fusion opponent” is 31-16-2. That’s a national championship level record. In the last three weeks, they’ve played the top two pre-season WCHA picks and one of the best NCHC teams. Unlike last season, when Them Dogs played the lower echelon of the WCHA before New Year’s Day, this year they are playing the best.
If they can get through the next 6 weeks with a few wins, they’ll see the schedule ease up just a bit. The WCHA from top to bottom looks to be better than last year, so there won’t be any easy games—but the challenge should be somewhat less intense after they return from the Arizona State series in the first week of 2020.
-The Huskies’ Defensive Play Has Been Fine.
If the goals-for total has been less than exciting, the goals-against for Tech has been excellent. They’ve yielded just 19 goals in 9 games, and one goal was an empty netter. That’s 2 goals per game, and that’s enough to win frequently—at least if you are averaging about 3 goals a game on offense—which, of course, they aren’t even close to.
-Tech Is Staying Out of the Penalty Box.
Friday night, Tech only took two penalties. One was an offsetting two-minute minor for a goal mouth scuffle after the whistle but the second was a five-minute major for elbowing, a call that absolutely mystified the Old Dog. Tyrell Buckley delivered a very hard hit near the blue line, and the momentum of the hit caused a Mav to carry forward into Buckley. There was some head contact with Buckley’s elbow, and after a long back-and-forth video review, Buckley got a major—but not a game misconduct.
I’ll be blunt. It was a ridiculous call, and it led to the Mav’s only power play goal of the weekend. To even call it a minor for elbowing was probably too much—it seemed like he was penalized simply because he hit someone too hard. Niklas Kronwall would have approved.
On Saturday, Tech took just two minors. This is a complete turn-around from last season, when the Huskies were in the box for undisciplined penalties time and again.
-Is This Why Minnesota State Can’t Win Any NCAA Tournament Games?
Let me start out by saying that year-in-and-year-out MSU has been the best team in the WCHA since it was reformed when the NCHC was created. In addition, Mike Hastings has proven he might be one of the best coaches in the country. He’s also one of the classiest, most polished and gentlemanly guys in college hockey today. His teams play clean, disciplined hockey night after night. I see echoes of John MacInnes whenever I hear him speak, and for the Old Dog, that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay him.
But they’ve absolutely floundered in the NCAA tournament—and they’ve been a near-lock to make the tournament every year since 2014. They haven’t won a single game, have blown leads regularly, and are one of the big reasons that the WCHA’s Big Skate record is miserable.
After watching Hasting’s teams play now for several years, I’ve seen something that just might explain why that’s the case. The Mav’s almost always have top ten talent, although they aren’t getting some of the big names that go high in the NHL draft. But they have more weapons than any team in the WCHA every year. So how is this weaponry deployed? They play a tight-checking game, and they look for opportunities to take advantage of their opponent’s records. They add to that a strong power play and good penalty kill.
Given MSU’s talent edge in the WCHA, that’s enough to win on most nights. But, once you reach the tournament, that talent edge goes away. And then the Purple Cows are just mediocre. My unsolicited amateur advice to Coach Hastings is simple: turn some of that talent loose and take more offensive chances. Yes, you might lose a couple of more games in the WCHA because you will get burned at times. But if you get to the tournament, your players may discover they can put more pressure on the best teams from the rest of the country, and the Mavs just might become a serious national championship contender.
Oh, and by the way, if you see echoes of the Mavs in the way the Huskies play lately, that’s also food for thought in Houghton. And this style of play is making the whole WCHA a lot less entertaining to watch.
-Tech’s Freshmen Look Good—and the Sophomores Are Finding It Tougher Than They Anticipated
It looks like the Huskies have added some real talent this year. Defenseman Chris Lipe has looked like a veteran, although he struggled some for the first time Saturday against MSU. Parker Saretsky is the real deal upfront, effective in the offensive end and not a liability on the back end. Logan Pietila is a keeper, too. Twin brother Blake Pietila looked very solid in goal against MSU, with great positioning and solid glove work. Four periods aren’t enough to know for sure, but so far he looks like the real deal. Similarly, Brenden Datema, who can shoot the puck like no one else the Old Dog has ever seen at Tech, played a lot of minutes Saturday, and, with just one or two exceptions, played very well. He has a huge wingspan and a very impressive reach, and he broke up Mav plays that no one else would have been able to reach.
This year’s sophomores, though, are finding things harder than they probably expected. After a great freshman year, most of them are finding less ice space and less time to make plays, as other teams know their tendencies and are checking them more effectively than when they were new and unknown commodities. The Old Dog has seen this happen so consistently for NCAA players I’m wondering if it’s almost a rule of thumb: If you are a standout freshman player, you are almost certain to fade a bit in your sophomore year. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I can’t think of any personally.
Next Week Is A Huge Test.
Next weekend, the Huskies will shuffle over to the Soo to take on Lake Superior State. The Lakers, like Tech, have had a rough start, and stand at 4-8-0. They haven’t looked like the team the Old Dog expected, and the graduation and “go pro” losses they suffered have been part of their slow start.
If the Huskies can’t manage any offense against the Lakers, it could be a bad sign. Lake State has given up 50 goals in 12 games while scoring 34. Alabama-Huntsville is the only other NCAA team allowing more than 4 goals per game, and the upcoming series is critical for Them Dogs. If they can’t get untracked offensively against Seamore The Sea Duck’s Yooper Minions, that will be a very bad sign indeed.