Well, that was a surprise. The Michigan Tech Huskies opened their 2020-21 COVID-delayed season by scoring just one goal in six periods this past weekend against Lake Superior State. In the process, they ended up with a 0-0 tie on Saturday and a 4-1 loss on Sunday—a loss that was closer than the score, but a loss no less. Oh, and to add insult to injury, LSSU won the shootout (which has no effect on anything except bragging rights) after the 0-0 tie.
If there was one part of Tech’s roster that looked strong, it was the offense. But that didn’t pan out against the Lakers.
The Big Picture
In the grander scheme of things, it’s possible to suggest that these games didn’t mean much because they don’t count in the WCHA standings. None of Tech’s schedule prior to January will count in the league. At the same time, Tech has a stated goal of being a national contender and getting into the NCAA Tournament—the Big Skate—every year. And the insignificance of these two games may, in fact, be true.
In this odder than odd season, no one really knows how the tournament field will be selected. Given the lack of interleague play this year, the old numerically determined Pairwise Rankings just can’t be used. In addition, this game against LSSU (as well as every game that will be played prior to January 2021) is not used in the WCHA standings. So, it may be nothing more than an exhibition, played to get the teams ready for the more-important-than-ever conference championship and playoffs.
If you believe that, though, you’ll also think the next two games against Northern Michigan would have been nothing more than exhibitions, too. That requires a suspension of belief for Husky fans that’s hard to accept.
Unfortunately, Them Dogs won’t get to try and fix things this weekend, as the home-and-home games against Northern Michigan were cancelled Monday due to positive COVID tests for the Wildcats. NMU has, in fact, cancelled or postponed their next 6 games. The following weekend series may also be in jeopardy as Minnesota State went into COVID shutdown this past Monday.
Adding it up, the Old Dog will put forth the idea that these pre-conference games do mean something, but not as much as they might in a more typical year. You can choose your own belief, though, and at this moment no one (including the NCAA or any of the six conference commissioners) seems to know for that matter.
The Bad and the Ugly
We’ll get to the good in a moment, but let’s first consider what didn’t look particularly good on the ice against LSSU. At the top of the list is the lack of offense. The first game on Saturday was a bit sloppy and played at a relatively slow pace. There were far more icing calls than shots on goal for either team in the first two periods. Things picked up in the third, and the Huskies had a couple of quality shots on the LSSU net.
The second game was more intense and was a 1-1 tie late in the third. But LSSU surged at the end, caught Tech in a defensive lapse, and went up 2-1. They added another late goal (again, due to a defensive breakdown) and an empty netter, and that was the end of a disappointing weekend for MTU.
In Joe Shawhan’s Monday show, he hit on the issues that were floating in my mind as I watched these games. It reminded me (and Shawhan) of the Alaska series last fall, which Mrs. Dog and I were in Houghton to watch. LSSU wanted it more. The Nanooks were able to play with a bit more intensity and seemed to know exactly how to break up Tech’s passing game—just what the Lakers did this past weekend.
Shawhan was also willing to say Tech was probably outcoached. Damon Whitten continues to show precisely how to frustrate Shawhan’s system, which led to the Huskies looking for the perfect pass instead of dumping it on the net or into the corners and then out-working the Lakers. Another indicator of Tech playing a bit soft was that they missed the net when they did have good shots. By his own admission, Shawhan didn’t like that but for whatever reason the Huskies weren’t able to adjust well enough to overcome Whitten’s game plan.
As Shawhan pointed out, Lake State was very content to ice the puck when Tech pressed, confident in their ability to win draws and reset the play in their own end rather than struggle against the Huskies extended forecheck. Again, that’s the kind of thing that upset Them Dogs’ rhythm last fall, too—and was a big factor in last season’s poor start. Shawhan was right—the Huskies just didn’t grind it out nor did they get to the “hard ice” the head coach likes to talk about.
To start, freshman Brett Thorne looked like a seasoned veteran. He took a penalty on Sunday that may have been a poor choice, but otherwise he looked like he’d been a first-pair D-man for a couple of years. He also showed poise and control on the point during powerplays.
Mark Sinclair was also outstanding in net. He made a ton of great saves both nights and kept MTU in the game for more than five and a half periods. He was in great position and showed a real maturity in handling the puck behind the net—unlike some of the drama we’ve seen for the last few seasons with Tech’s goaltenders. All three of the goals that got past him were due to defensive breakdowns—one on a deflection followed by a rebound put in by a poorly covered trailer, one on a two-on-one, and one on a breakaway.
Beyond those three goals in the second game, the defense generally played well. Colin Swoyer, Tyler Rockwell and Eric Gotz were solid. All three goals Sunday were scored with the third defensive pairing on the ice.
To be brutally honest, this series didn’t have much exciting hockey. It was certainly disheartening to see a veteran team largely repeat the early season errors that plagued Tech for the last two seasons. It’s also depressing to see that neither the upper class leaders nor the coaches were able to establish the game style that will win games in the defensively minded WCHA.
That’s the type of mental failing that is difficult for the Old Dog to accept. It’s OK to make mental mistakes in the heat of battle, but to get outsmarted (which is really what this kind of play amounts to) is hard to swallow.
Once again, it’s only two games. Husky Nation, including the always-wanting-more Old Dog, needs to take a deep breath and let things evolve between now and New Year’s Day. Who knows how many more games might be upset by the virus—or if the Huskies may have to suspend practices as well as games due to the pandemic.
There’s a certain perspective that we all have to respect with the current state of affairs, and—after 1,100 or so words—that’s the last word from the Old Dog.