Just before Halloween, after MTU had split with Bowling Green down in Ohio, the Old Dog wrote a column titled “The Turning Point?” In that column, I said we’d know a lot more about this year’s Husky team after they played Minnesota State and North Dakota. Even though Tech lost all three of those games, they played well against two of the very best teams in the country. In all honesty, they could have beaten North Dakota, and I think they gave the Mavericks a scare in the Saturday night game at the J-Mac. With a couple of breaks, they could have won two of the three contests.
But losing three in a row didn’t make any fans feel good (including the Old Dog and Mrs. Dog), although it was very obvious that Team 99 was improving in significant ways. Passes that were lagging or too far earlier in the season were now on the tape. There were longer stretches where Them Dogs were able to keep the puck in the opposing end for more than ten seconds—and they were getting a lot more shots at the goal (even if too many of them weren’t actually on goal).
After completing the Yooper Sweep this weekend in Marquette, I think it’s safe to say that the win at Bowling Green really was a turning point. This is a much better team than we saw in the first six games. There are still major problems and holes that need to be plugged, but two positives are clear at this point:
- The Huskies can play with anyone. They’d be underdogs against perhaps ten of the sixty Division I teams, but they can win against any of them. They’d have to play their best game, get great goaltending, and they’d need to get a bounce or two. But any team that takes them lightly will likely be unhappy—even if they beat Them Dogs.
- Tech is relevant in the national discussion again. After falling out of that category in the second half of last season, they’re back in legitimate contention for an NCAA tournament berth. It won’t be easy to get there, and Tech will need to continue to improve, but the talent needed to reach the Big Skate is there.
This last weekend against Northern Michigan put all of these factors, both good and bad, on display. On Friday night, Tech started slowly, and the first period looked like two teams that were wary of one another. Neither squad seemed to be stepping on the gas pedal very hard. In the second period—which has been a bugaboo for Tech—they fell behind in the first minute. They battled back, though, and tied it up about 11 minutes later, only to give up another goal less than two minutes later.
This looked all too familiar and was reminiscent of the double loss series at home against Alaska. However, something lit a fuse under the Husky bench when the third period started, and Tech dominated for long stretches. Goals by Colin Swoyer and Brian Halonen put Tech up by one about halfway through the period. Goalie Matt Jurusik was again rock solid, and made, as Hall of Fame broadcaster for Hockey Night in Canada Danny Gallivan used to say, an enormous save with just seconds left on the clock to seal the win against the despised Wildcats.Saturday seemed to belong to the Huskies as the action moved to Marquette. In the arena that Discord Dog Bose301s has dubbed “The Litter Box” because it’s the Cat’s home, it’s square, and it tends to be filled with nasty “stuff,” Them Dogs again relied on Jurusik’s goaltending but found more offense and jumped to a 3-0 lead after two periods. It looked like Tech was home free, but as usually happens in this bitter rivalry, Northern didn’t quit and gave the Huskies another scare, scoring early in the third period and then getting a second goal with just over a minute left with an extra man on the ice after pulling their goalie. They kept up the pressure, and as most know, with one second left a major brawl broke out in the Tech end.
When the extensive penalty log was completed, and a one-second puck drop ran out the clock, the Huskies had notched their fourth victory in a row. That’s progress, and it’s the kind of result that seemed possible after that weekend in Bowling Green. The Huskies now have six more games before the holiday break, and there’s a great deal on the table. They still have a lot of things to fix to reach the potential that I think this team has.
First up is a re-match with the Nanooks in Fairbanks. Tech’s had great success there in the last several years, but this is a different UAF team. They are extremely disciplined, they get good goaltending, and, for a change, they are also getting timely scoring. They’ve played a difficult schedule so far and have kept their heads above water in the standings (8-8 overall, 6-4 in the WCHA, and 24th in the RPI). Tech badly needs to get points on this trip, and the Old Dog thinks they may have the motivation after losing two at home to UAF just a few weeks ago. One factor that may work for Tech is that they played on Olympic size ice at the Litter Box, and they will play on the big ice at Alaska.
That will be a short trip, though, as Them Dogs have to return to Houghton to face Alaska-Anchorage the following weekend. The Seawolves are not a particularly good team, but they are much better than they were last year and have been in almost every game. They’ve beaten their arch-rival UAF once and tied Nebraska-Omaha. After a long trip to Fairbanks and a quick return to Houghton, the Huskies will need to be sharp and not have a letdown to keep going around that corner.
The final series before the Holidays is a rematch with Clarkson, but this time the games are at the J-Mac. Last year, Clarkson rode great goaltending to a pair of 3-1 wins (with Clarkson getting an empty net goal in both games) in upstate New York, where Clarkson is nearly unbeatable. The Golden Knights are again one of the top teams in Division I, sitting at 10th in the RPI, and own a 10-3-1 record (5-1 in the ECAC). This will be a formidable test for Tech, but it’s also the last non-conference series for the Huskies and they must do well if they want to stay in the mix for one of the top slots in the RPI and a possible at-large NCAA berth.
The trip from this point forward is certainly not downhill, but it no longer looks like the Huskies are headed in the wrong direction.