It felt like the movie Groundhog Day for the Old Dog this past weekend, as the Huskies repeated the same basic pattern of play for the third straight series. At Arizona State, they fell behind by three goals in the first game and mounted a comeback that fell short. In the second game, they got an early lead, ASU countered, and Tech scored a late goal to get a split. Against Bowling Green at home, they again gave up three unanswered goals in the series opener and came back—but lost again. On Saturday, they seesawed with the Falcons and lost in the 3 on 3 overtime.
On the road at Bemidji State this past weekend, they did almost the same thing yet again. Friday was a bad outing; Them Dogs fell behind 4-0 and this time, the comeback was almost non-existent. In the second game, the Huskies again grabbed an early lead, couldn’t hang on and lost once more in the 3 on 3 overtime.
So, what happened to the team that looked so good in the Great Lakes Invitational? The team that went 9-2-1 in November and December? Joe Shawhan attributed this swoon to a “GLI hangover” and that does have a ring of truth. But watching from the Winter Doghouse in Dallas—and seeing the ASU series up-close-and-personal—there are some other things that seem to be factors in this bad stretch for Tech. It’s a long list, so hang in there with me.
Matt Jurusik has cooled off in goal. He’s had a couple of below-expectation games in this streak, and he hasn’t had some of the “oh my how did he do that” saves he came up with earlier. In short, he’s not been playing well enough to steal a game for the last three weeks. Giving Blake Pietila a start last week in Bemidji didn’t work, either. You could attribute this to defensive mistakes, but Jurusik was covering up those issues when the Huskies were winning. It doesn’t really look like Tech is playing any worse in their own end than they were before.
They’ve almost (not quite) stopped trying to dump the puck behind the opposing defenses and chase and forecheck in the corners and behind the net. Where we previously saw two forwards chasing and pressuring, we are now seeing just one and sometimes none. Instead, the forwards are consistently trying to make tic-tac-toe passes to get over the blue line and the experienced (and physical) defenses of ASU, BGSU, and BSU just aren’t going to allow that. As a result, the ice is tilted toward Jurusik too often, and there just aren’t many sloppy goals to be had in what Shawhan calls “the hard areas” in front of the net. This worries the Old Dog, because this is the same pattern we saw last year after the holidays, and we all know that didn’t turn out well.
Winning the GLI against Michigan State and Michigan just isn’t the same as winning against the upper echelon of the WCHA. The Big Ten is a run-and-gun league; 4, 5 or 6 goals per night for a winning team isn’t unusual. B1G (I hate that but that’s what they call themselves) teams don’t have the best goaltending and their defensemen are usually offensive minded. I’ve watched a fair number of Big Ten games this season and the play is wide open and rarely results in games that are 2-1 or 3-2.
The Huskies seem to prefer this glitzy style but the WCHA is a defense-first league and nearly every team has a goalie who can throw a shutout at you if you aren’t willing to grind it out in the offensive end. It’s true that the WCHA favors a boring style—Mrs. Dog has admitted it’s difficult to stay awake for some of these games—but that style can also be very effective for teams that are willing to play with a high degree of discipline.
The Huskies are not shooting as much as they were before. Instead, it seems that they keep looking for the perfect pass and highlight goals. That means few rebounds, almost no goal mouth scrambles and “jam it in the net anyway you can” goals that their opponents are getting. Even when they are shooting, they’re missing the net repeatedly. Again, it seems they are looking for dagger goals, the top-shelf beauties, instead of the lunch-bucket goals that can turn a game around.
Even further, when they do get a highlight reel opportunity, they aren’t finishing. We’ve seen several Husky breakaways over the past three weeks and not one ended up in the net. Brian Halonen’s goal against Bowling Green was spectacular, but it wasn’t a breakaway as much as it was an end-to-end rush that penetrated the defense.
They miss Keegan Ford—and they miss him a lot. Ford’s been out with an injury and hasn’t played since the GLI final. Ford balances out the Huskies’ defense to offense transition perhaps better than any other defenseman on the squad. He was also playing particularly well during critical times in games.
The power play has almost collapsed. They rarely get control after the opening face off in the offensive end, and they are wilting under pressure when the other side tries to force the play out at the blue line. The result is few shots and little time in the offensive end.
At the same time, the penalty kill has pulled back into a shell. The Huskies aren’t pressuring the other team near the blue line and letting them throw the puck around at will on the perimeter. It’s almost the exact opposite of what the other guys are doing to us. So, Tech’s defenders are working their tails off, blocking shots, and expending tons of energy trying to hold the fort. The PK percentage isn’t all that bad, but the impact on play late in the game, when everyone is tired, is likely a factor.
Finally, Them Dogs do look to be either utterly inept or totally clueless in 3 on 3 overtime. I don’t know why, as 3 on 3 is a typical tryout tool that youth coaches use to look for talent, so I’m sure the guys on the roster have experience in this area. But for some reason, Tech has looked lost in these extra-point scenarios.
This brings us to another important point. The Old Dog admits, fully and unconditionally, that I’m an armchair observer (well, a Lazy Boy recliner observer, really) and not nearly as knowledgeable about hockey as Tech’s staff. But all of these things can’t be obvious to me and not to them. In fact, we’ve heard somewhat similar comments from Joe Shawhan, Dallas Steward, and Chris Brooks. So, either the staff isn’t getting the message across or the players are ignoring them.
Are we seeing a repeat of last season’s pattern, where Shawhan became increasingly frustrated with a team that just wouldn’t play the game the way he wants it to be played? Are the players, as Shawhan has said, reading too much of the good press they were getting and let it distract them or go to their heads?
In early December, I offered THG readers the idea that we are witnessing the ripening process for a young team. That’s still true, but it seems like this team stepped to the edge of maturity and has, for whatever reason, backed away. For those of us who bleed black and gold, that’s both nerve-wracking and agonizing all at the same time. The Old Dog has tried both Two Hearted Ale and abstinence over the past three series, and nothing has reduced my angst.
The Huskies are now on the edge of losing home ice in the WCHA playoffs. They’ve also completely lost any chance at an NCAA at-large berth. Some of this can be blamed on the flu bug that ripped through the locker room after trips to Detroit and Phoenix but at some point that excuse just falls flat. With the tail-end teams of the league mostly left on the schedule, they have a chance to turn the playoff picture around. It starts this weekend at home against Ferris State, and FSU is, at the moment, playing even worse than Tech.
I don’t know if I can’t wait for Friday or if I dread it.