Michigan Tech ran their winning streak to five this weekend with a sweep of Alabama-Huntsville, but it was another series that has to leave most fans scratching their heads about this year’s edition of the Huskies. Even though Them Dogs are now 2-0 in the WCHA standings, this team is turning out to be an enigma.
What, you might ask, is the definition of an enigma? According to the Oxford Dictionary used by Google, an enigma is “a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand.” Wow. That fits this team—at least so far this season—like a glove. Not a mitten, with some looseness and a reassuring warmth, but a glove, which sometimes leaves your fingers feeling cold.
Game One: Looking Good, Mostly
On Saturday, Tech turned in a solid performance in a 4-0 win. Blake Pietila posted an almost-expected shutout against the winless Chargers. Freshman Nick Nardella got his first career goal and made a beautiful pass to set up Brian Halonen for Halonen’s third game winning goal. The defense was generally sound, and the Huskies controlled the play for long stretches.
But there were occasional signs that things weren’t as neat as the score suggested. Pietila had to stop three or four great scoring opportunities, including a couple of point blank one-timers. Since Nardella’s goal was fortuitous, deflecting in off a UAH skate, things could have been a bit different if the breaks had fallen another way.
Nonetheless, a 4-0 win is nothing to sneer at, particularly since Huntsville has given the Huskies absolute fits for the past few years.
Game Two: Huh?
Sunday started out well. Tyler Rockwell got his second goal of the series just three minutes into the first period, a powerplay wrister that was almost a carbon copy of his goal Saturday. Chris Lipe added one from the top of the zone just a minute and a half later, and it looked like Tech was going to blow the Chargers out of the JMac.
But noooo, as the late John Belushi used to say. Halfway through the first period, UAH came alive and started to control the play. At the 13:39 mark, Charger Noah Finstrom outworked Tech defenders behind the net, and shoveled the puck out in front—where it then deflected in off Justin Misiak (backchecking as he always does) and into the net. Mark Sinclair, getting the start against his old team, had no chance and suddenly things were different.
The hockey gods are often impartial, as this was about the same kind of thing that Nardella benefitted from the day before.
From that point forward, Huntsville made a strong bid to squeeze out a point or two in the WCHA standings. In the near empty arena (family members were allowed to enter for this game, the first time there were any fans sitting in the JMac that weren’t made of cardboard), you could hear the Chargers’ bench yelling and showing how determined they were to keep the heat on Tech.
The Huskies did put pressure on the Chargers in the offensive zone quite a few times during the remainder of the game, but Tech’s overall game seemed to be off, and far off at times. Passes were too long or too short, pass receptions were bobbled, and the Chargers won more than their share of the one-on-one battles or two-on-two scrums that are so important in hockey these days.
If Sinclair hadn’t made a half-dozen solid or even spectacular saves, the game might not have ended in the 2-1 Tech win that ensued. That included a save in the closings seconds when UAH had pulled their goalie. Yep, the scoring was over after just one period, and those following the Huskies electronically (which is almost everyone this year) were left to bite their nails or otherwise fidget uncomfortably for almost two and a half periods as it looked like Tech might once again fail to sweep an inferior team.
While it’s important to note that some of the Huskies played very well on Sunday—Sinclair was excellent in net, Lipe continued to show how much he’s progressed in his sophomore year with 4 blocked shots, 5 shots on goal, and a +1 rating for the game, and Halonen was a real offensive force. The pairing of Lipe and Rockwell not only scored both goals but were lights-out solid in their own end. But too often on too many shifts, something was missing.
Shawhan Less Than Pleased
In his immediate post-game comments, coach Joe Shawhan alluded to “passengers” meaning some of the lineup appeared to be along for the ride. He further explained that a few were choosing to play they way they wanted to play and not the way the coaches wanted them to play. On Monday, on the Joe Shawhan Hour, he went into more detail and got quite technical to explain what he meant, but it all added up to the same thing.
The Old Dog brought this same issue up after the split with Bemidji in mid-December. At that point, I felt the coaches shared some of the burden for this, but this time I’m squarely in Shawhan’s corner. It looked like about half the team thought this was the time to get their name on the scoresheet by scoring a goal, and the teamwork and sharp play exhibited against Northern Michigan just before the holidays was, on too many occasions, absent.
This isn’t a particularly talented UAH team. They only won two games last year, including one against Tech. Then the school decided to drop hockey before being revived by a massive Go Fund Me effort (which the Old Dog chipped in $50 for). During the interim, their roster was cherry picked as some of their recruits bailed out and the best three or four players transferred—that’s how Sinclair ended up in Houghton. But they played with discipline and fire, even anger at times, and stood up to the Huskies once again. Tech escaped with a sweep, but it was anything but easy. Kudos to the Chargers, they deserved a better fate, but Them Dogs let them breathe and a great team doesn’t do that.
All of this leaves me unable to get a handle on this 100th year team. Are they a really good team that could challenge for the McNaughton Cup and an NCAA tournament berth? Or are they once again only the fourth or fifth best team in the rump WCHA, which isn’t the toughest conference itself.
Next week, Tech is headed to Mankato to take on nationally ranked (4th) Minnesota State. The Mavericks swept Northern Michigan this weekend, with two shutout wins and nine total goals against the Wildcats. Many fans have said (and I’ve said it too), Tech tends to play up against the best teams and down against the weaker teams.
We’ll see if that holds true in a few days. But, if we see the kind of half-way team effort that was on display Sunday, Minnesota State isn’t known for playing down to anyone. When they smell blood, they lock on for the kill.