Last weekend was another mixed bag for Michigan Tech, as the Huskies played poorly on Friday night, losing to Lake Superior State 7-3 and then topped the Lakers 4-3 in overtime on Saturday. Friday’s game was nothing short of a disaster, as the Huskies suffered from poor defense and goaltending. They did outshoot the Lakers by a wide margin, but there were just too many sloppy passes, weak positioning, very poor play with the man advantage, and soft goals galore.
Even on Saturday, the Lakers controlled the play for long stretches, and only a big game in net from Robbie Beydoun—who had not played since November 8th—made victory possible for Them Dogs. Still, for a Winter Carnival weekend, it was a less-than-pleasant experience for most Husky fans.
There were plenty of things to think about after the ice chips settled. Here are some that rang a bell for The Old Dog.
- The Huskies are now 4-6-2 (and lost the extra WCHA point in both ties) since winning the Great Lakes Invitational Championship in Detroit on New Year’s Eve.
- The GLI champion usually gets a huge boost after the tournament. In an unusual turn of events this year, the Huskies have sagged while Mel Pearson’s Michigan Wolverines—Tech’s opponent in the GLI final—are 6-1-1 since losing to Tech in Detroit.
- Matt Jurusik, who has been Tech’s dominant goalie this year, had words with coach Joe Shawhan Friday during the game and was pulled after only 11:38 had expired in the first period against LSSU. There’s been some online buzz about the dispute, but whatever occurred, Jurusik was not even in uniform for Saturday’s game.
- Brian Halonen continues to play very well, even when things aren’t going right for Tech. He notched two goals and two assists over the weekend and was Tech’s most dangerous player both nights (earning him Carnival MVP).
- For the third year in a row, it seems very likely that MTU will not have home ice in the WCHA playoffs. In the revamped WCHA, that’s a huge disappointment. There’s no other way to put it. In the old WCHA, with some of the best teams in the country, failure to gain home ice was understandable. It’s a bitter pill to swallow now with the undeniably lower level of talent that Tech plays against in the current league configuration.
- Similarly, for the third year in a row, the Huskies have had a great deal of difficulty playing the heart of their WCHA schedule after the GLI. Their offense has struggled most nights as they are forced to play the close-checking, slow-it-down style that’s so prevalent in the WCHA.
- The Huskies’ power play still doesn’t look very good. Them Dogs never seem to win the opening face off and get set up immediately. Then, once they get possession (usually in their own end after a clear by the other team), they have trouble crossing the blue line. If they do manage to get into the zone and set up, teams know the Huskies usually wilt if they apply pressure to Tech’s point men. The predictable result is a forced pass, a dump into a corner, or something else that leads to a quick turnover. The result is frequently a clearing shot that starts this pattern again, and few quality shots result.
- The penalty kill is just the opposite. The Huskies retreat into a collapsed diamond, rarely pressure the points, and the other guys pass it around seemingly at will. While Tech’s managed to keep the puck out of the net doing this, it’s got to be exhausting for the Huskies and energizing for the other side.
- Alex Smith came back from his inexplicable cut-back on a two on one against Alabama-Huntsville with a strong series against LSSU. His performance included his game-winning overtime goal, in which he made a great cut to the high slot to give the Huskies a huge win and three points.
- On that goal, Halonen made a nice pass—and the overall play looked like a mirror image of the goal Halonen scored in the first minute of the game on a similar pass from Smith. That did give the game a sort of symmetry and sent everyone home with something to feel good about.
- Smith also made a beautiful play to set up Halonen’s second goal Saturday night. All in all, Smith was a huge factor in Tech’s win and played well all weekend.
- Due to a technical glitch, the Joe Shawhan Hour (recorded version) was cut to 22 minutes instead of an hour. It appears that the normal review of the second game was lost, but the tail end of the Q & A section was available.
- Overall, Shawhan wasn’t terribly revealing, and deferred on some tougher questions—particularly one that dealt with maintaining forechecking pressure, something that seemed to be sorely lacking this past weekend. It was pretty clear that Shawhan didn’t agree with the premise of the question—but, for the Old Dog, watching on FloHockey, it was equally clear (to me) that Tech spent a great deal more time scrumming behind their own goal line and along the side boards in their own end than LSSU spent doing those things in their end. That’s got to have an impact as the play continues, because nothing drains endurance from a team like pushing, shoving, poking and pinning the puck against the boards in the defensive end of the rink.
Finally, it’s fair to ask if there are any takeaways we can discern from all of this. From the Old Dog’s perspective, I don’t have any clearer understanding of why Tech struggles so badly against weak competition that they’ve had all season. Among the 60 Division I teams, Tech’s last three foes shouldn’t present an uphill challenge. In the current pairwise ratings, Ferris State is 51st, Alabama-Huntsville is 58th, and Lake State is 45th. And, each of these teams got a boost in that rating scheme by getting a split against the Huskies.
Shawhan continues to call his team “young” and “fragile.” Whether that makes sense or not is a question that’s very hard to answer. After three straight years of second-half failure, that’s doesn’t resonate for the Old Dog. With just one more year left on his contract, Shawhan will certainly feel pressure next season to get past those kinds of things.
In the meantime, you can always spin the wheel for some Keweenaw Roulette. Maybe you’ll get an answer that you like, because I’m certainly not getting any answers while watching this season as it nears what seems increasingly likely to be a depressing finale in March on the road in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.