With the bittersweet taste of a split with Northern Michigan behind the Huskies, and the regular season at an end, it’s time once again for the Old Dog Awards. However, before I reveal my picks, I get to pat myself on the back.
Two weeks ago, I attempted to forecast the final WCHA standings. When the games were over, I got it almost completely correct. As I guessed, Minnesota State barely edged Bemidji State for the MacNaughton Cup. NMU finished third, Alaska fourth, Bowling Green fifth, and Tech was sixth. Lake State took seventh, and the only thing I got wrong was that Alaska-Anchorage grabbed the final playoff spot, leaving Ferris State on the outside looking in. I never would have guessed that an FSU team coached by Bob Daniels would lose six straight to conclude their season, but that’s the way it ended.
I also want to say that I don’t like this finish. I would have loved to see Tech in third. And, in truth, the difference between third and sixth is razor thin. When these middle tier teams play each other, it’s just a matter of who plays better on a particular night. I think it’s misleading to say that any of these teams are better or worse than any other.
We can only hope the Huskies are the team that plays better next week when they return to the Litterbox to face the Wildcats. But enough about that. There will be plenty of discussion about that from other sources this week. Time to hand out the Old Dog Awards for 2019-2020.
The James Brown Hardest Working Man in Hockey Award. For the second year in a row, Justin Misiak is my choice. Misiak even played when he was sick when the flu struck the Huskies after the series in Arizona. Once again, Misiak added a plus-minus of +4 (tied for third). Had he spent more time on one of the top two lines instead of the third line, he may have had more than 9 points, too.
The Bob D’Alvise Scoring Award. D’Alvise was Tech’s leading scorer on the 1975 NCAA championship team, and, in his senior year, had 37 goals and 47 assists in 42 games. This year’s winner is Trenton Bliss with 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists). That’s three more points than Jake Lucchini notched last year. Bliss just edged Alec Broetzman, who posted 16 goals and 10 assists and gets the The Mike Zuke Goal Scorer’s Award. With Bliss and Broetzman, as well as Brian Halonen (22 points) and Tommy Parrottino (17 points) returning for their junior year, the offense for Season 100 could be special.
The Chris Conner Pound-For-Pound Award. Few players were better in his era than Chris Conner. And at 5 foot 7 inches, he was both lightning fast and tough as nails. Fourteen years after graduating, Conner has never played below the AHL level as a professional, and he’s played 180 games in the NHL. He’s still playing, this year for Birmingham’s Devils—and, at the age of 36, has 27 points so far this season. For the second year in a row, Tyler Rockwell gets the nod. Generously listed at 5-8 and 160 pounds, Rockwell was fearless, scrumming in his own end against much bigger opponents and, more often than not, coming out with the puck.
The Bob Lorimer Gibraltar Award. Lorimer was the blueline anchor on the Huskies’ last national championship team at a time when defense was an afterthought for most college teams. Senior Keegan Ford, soon to enter the US Army, is my choice for this season. Ford has been dogged by injuries during his time in Houghton, but when he was in the lineup, Tech was a better team. That’s particularly true on the powerplay, where is calm control of the puck was critical. He was also +8. Colin Swoyer deserves mention here as well, notching 20 points and finishing +2. But Swoyer will have two more years to display his talent, and Ford is richly deserving for his contributions this season.
The How Did I End Up In Houghton Rookie of the Year Award. This year, my choice for this prize is Parker Saretsky, who came from the Alberta prairies to don the black and gold. With 17 points and a -1 rating, Saretsky was an important cog in Tech’s season. His junior teammate Logan Ganie also deserves mention, as his +5 rating was tops among freshmen for the Huskies. Logan Pietila also performed well for a freshman with 16 points and a +0 rating. But Pietila came from Brighton, Michigan, and follows in a long line of his relatives, so he knew what Houghton was all about before he arrived.
The John Scott I Actually Studied Award. The Huskies’ performance in the classroom was exceptional this year. No less than 13 players made the Dean’s List with 3.5 to 4.0 grade point averages at the end of the fall semester. TJ Polglaze wins this year by virtue of his 4.0 average in exercise science.
The Al Karlander Senior Leadership Award. Karlander was the best Husky the Old Dog saw while I was a student, and Tech was a perennial national contender when he played. Picking a Karlander winner was relatively easy this year, as there were only three seniors who played in most of the games. We’ve already discussed Keegan Ford, and Ray Brice was also an important contributor. But Alex Smith outshone them all. Smith was the team leader with a +9 rating and contributed 22 points as well. As co-captain with Brice, Smith was on for almost every important faceoff in every game. He played in all 37 games and will be missed next season.
The Billy Steele Penalty Killer Extraordinaire Award. Steele was a high-motor player who wasn’t afraid to do whatever it took to eat penalty minutes. While Them Dogs had a respectable 82.3% PK rate, it was an adventure to watch them, as they played a sagging style that often relied on goaltending as much as anything. Nevertheless, the Old Dog’s pick for this one is Seamus Donohue. Donohue was critical on most kills, doing a lot of the down-low dirty work that led to successful kills. He also stayed out of the penalty box for the most part, which was something that caused concern a year ago.
The Tony Esposito Goaltending Award. This is yet another category with a repeat winner. Matt Jurusik rebounded from a pre-Christmas sag to be the dominant keeper for the Huskies. He played in 32 of Tech’s 37 games and racked up an excellent 2.12 goals against average and .922 save percentage. He was also the first star in several games, stealing a few that Tech had no business winning. And, while Donohue did a lot of work on the penalty kill, it was still Jurusik who was essential to maintaining a solid PK rate. Jurusik will have to be at his best in the WCHA playoffs if the Huskies are to advance beyond the first round.
The John MacInnes Coaching Grade. We’ve only got one staff, and they stand alone and must be judged as a group. So, the Old Dog awards a grade for this award. Joe Shawhan and his staff improved over the previous season, posting a 19-15-3 overall record and a WCHA mark of 14-12-2. The overall record, which included a Great Lakes Invitational championship, is a solid improvement over the previous year.
There were too many ups and downs, though, and, for the third year of Shawhan’s three-year tenure, Them Dogs sagged in the second half of the season. And I’ve complained about several of the tactical or system approaches the team used this year. But, in spite of all that, I think the staff has earned a solid “B” for this season. It’s taken a while for Shawhan to rebuild the program after Mel Pearson left the roster and the recruiting in a shambles, and we are starting to see results. Next year will be a critical year, though, with a ton of talent returning as juniors and sophomores.
It would be great to enjoy some of “next year” starting “next weekend” in the playoffs!