Six in a row—and eight more to go. That’s the latest on the Michigan Tech Huskies as this COVID-19 season rushes to an end.
Tech dropped a tough two game series to Bowling Green down in Ohio at the end of January, and then faced a hard stretch of 6 games in 11 days. It included four against Ferris State and two at Alabama-Huntsville. They won them all, with the first four spanning an arduous road trip.
Yes, FSU and UAH are not the strongest teams in the WCHA. However, in the past few season, the Huskies have labored against teams they should beat—but not this time. In the process, we were able to see this team grow by leaps and bounds, displaying additional offensive punch while continuing their stingy defense and goaltending. More importantly, they were able to perform against two teams that are masterful in containing (and sometimes defeating) any team that cannot maintain a disciplined and structured approach during each shift on the ice.
Winning Four Straight Against Ferris State
While this is the Bulldogs’ roughest season since Bob Daniels took over as head coach in 1992 (that’s 29 years if you have trouble doing the math), you can never count out his team. With longtime associate head coach Drew Famulak, who’s been with Daniels since 1993, FSU’s teams are renowned for their ability to concoct and execute varying offensive and defensive schemes that level the ice against teams with superior talent.
In fact, Daniels and Famulak are well known in coaching circles for the tactics they devised in 2011-2012 and rode those schemes all the way to the NCAA Championship game. Since the Bulldogs joined the WCHA in 2013-2014, they’ve given Them Dogs fits again and again.
This year, though, things have been different. Over the past weekend, on Friday Daniels threw up the Huntsville pack-‘em-in defense and the Huskies were able to adjust and counter the move. Then on Saturday, FSU changed up and went with a deny-them-entry-into-the-zone strategy, trying to force the Huskies to dump and chase in the offensive end. While it took a few shifts, Joe Shawhan and Chris Brooks figured it out and implemented counter-tactics.
While Ferris stayed in the game, closing the margin to 2-1 early in the third period, Tech continued efforts to overcome the FSU plan. They wore down the Bulldogs and exploded for 3 goals in less than six minutes in the third period and took the John MacInnes Winter Carnival trophy going away.
What was different this time? In the past, it seemed like Tech had a harder time adjusting to the wiles of opposing coaches. Even when the coaching staffs tried to adapt, it didn’t seem that the players were able to switch gears and kept falling into their old habits. This time, Them Dogs were the ones that executed, and the Huskies are now riding a six game winning streak.
Rough Lake(rs) Ahead
There’s no time to bask in their latest triumph, though. Due to the compressed schedule from COVID-19 postponements, MTU will finish out the last 19 days of the season with eight games. Even with their shiny 14-5-1 record, this will be tough sledding.
Not one of these games are against weaker teams.
It starts Tuesday afternoon with a home game against Lake Superior State. The Lakers are 9-4-3 this year and fresh off a very impressive semi-sweep (an OT win and a regular win) of Bowling Green at the Falcons’ rink, which is a very difficult place to play.
The boys from the Soo gave Tech fits in the opening series of the year way back before Thanksgiving, and coach Damon Whitten always has something special in store for Tech. In that first series, the Lakers just continually iced the puck, dramatically slowing the pace while increasingly frustrating Tech’s playmaking by clogging the passing lanes on the Huskies’ attempts to get rolling. While the first game ended in a 0-0 tie, in the second game, the Huskies ran out of patience and LSSU blew open a 1 goal game in the third period to get a non-conference win.
Will it be different this time? The Old Dog is much more confident that Tech will have something figured out, but with only one day to prepare—for either team—it should be an interesting chess match. LSSU has far more talent than FSU or UAH and this will be a huge game in the WCHA standings.
What Has Changed
At the same time, the Huskies are a much better team than they were in that first series at the Soo. They’ve added real talent and this season’s freshman class has matured into an important component of the Huskies’ on-ice presence.
There’s one other thing I suspect is going on as well. Them Dogs are developing into a more confident and composed squad than they’ve been over the last few years. While Shawhan’s teams do tend to peak in the final month every year, things might be even better because of the way the schedule has worked out this season.
We saw this last year at Bemidji State. The Beavers weren’t highly touted in the preseason polls, but at the end of the year, they were the last team standing that was seriously challenging the Beast—Minnesota State. What route did that that team take?
Prior to the holiday break, BSU had series against UAH and FSU and four games against a rebuilding LSSU. The went 6-1-1 in those contests. Then, right after the break, they had rematches with the Chargers and the Bulldogs, and swept all four of those games. That’s a 10-1-1 record against the bottom half of that year’s WCHA. The points they earned put them firmly into second place, and they were brimming with confidence. They subsequently split with Tech and the Mavericks, swept Bowling Green, Northern Michigan and Anchorage, and then split again with Mankato.
They built their team while beating the same caliber of competition that the Huskies have used to hone their skills and schemes this season. So, with more talent in the lineup and the level of play that this year’s Tech team has developed, the Huskies are well-positioned for the challenges that are ahead.
Eight games in nineteen days are all that’s left this season. If the Huskies step up, they could challenge Mankato for the MacNaughton cup. If they falter, they could end up in fifth or even sixth place when the WCHA playoffs start.
Let the games begin.