Michigan Tech split a series this past weekend with Clarkson, a power in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC), and a team that the Huskies haven’t bested in quite a few years. The way the split went down, however, was a disappointment to almost everyone interested in the Black and Gold.
A Friday Night Gem
In the first game of the series, Them Dogs and the Golden Knights sparred on Clarkson’s home ice for more than a period before Brian Halonen circled the offense zone, cruised into the slot, and fired home a rocket for a 1-0 Tech lead. Later in the period, Halonen went to the net, batted a pass from Alec Broetzman toward the net, and watched as the rebound caromed off his skate and into the net.
Although the Huskies outshot Clarkson 20-10 in the first two periods, the Knights took control of play in the final period, as Tech yield three power plays to the home team. But goalie Blake Pietila and solid penalty killing, plus an empty net goal by Ryland Moseley, ended the game with a 3-0 MTU win.
All in all, it was one of the more complete games that Tech has played in quite a while. The defensive coverage was, with just a couple of exceptions, very good, the passing was crisp, and the goaltending was flawless.
A Tarnished Saturday
For a period and a half, the second game of the series looked like the first. Tech controlled the play and again was playing great in both ends. Just like the night before, Halonen sniped another for a 1-0 lead just about 7 minutes into the second period.
Slowly, though, Clarkson, a big team with plenty of experience, got their legs going and started to pressure Tech. Finally, in the last minute and a half of the period, they fired two pucks past Pietila — both of which he had a good look at — and left the ice with a 2-1 lead.
In the final period, the Huskies upped the ante and pressured the Golden Knights heavily. But they couldn’t find the net, even with a dominant final 2 plus minutes with Pietila pulled for an extra attacker. Despite Tech yielding only 13 shots in the entire game, Clarkson squeezed out a split.
This was not the happiest ending.
There were plenty of “yeah buts” (“yabbits,” if you will) that true believers in Husky nation can latch onto. First, Clarkson is a good team, and they’ll certainly contend for the ECAC title and a spot in the NCAA tournament. Second, for all but two minutes of two games, Tech played some great end-to-end hockey. Third, Clarkson’s goalie Ethan Heider is a top tier keeper, and only Halonen seemed to know where to beat him. Fourth, Clarkson came into the game with a red-hot powerplay and Tech throttled them completely when the Huskies were on the power play, shutting down the Golden Knights nine times, including six on Friday.
And finally, as the Old Dog suggested in my preseason assessment of Tech, they once again suffocated their opponents defensively. Giving up only two goals over the weekend to a highly regarded team was great stuff no matter how you slice it. The Huskies have now allowed only six goals in five games.
At the same time, we’ve seen this movie before in the Joe Shawhan era at Tech. Solid defense, decent offense, but way too few goals on the scoreboard.
So, is the glass half empty or half full? Or, as engineers like to say, why is the volume of the glass underutilized?
Just Falling Back To Earth?
Them Dogs entered this season with big expectations, and after thoroughly whipping Wisconsin in the opening series in Madison, it looked like those expectations quite possibly could be fulfilled. After watching a very good team last season, a team that repeatedly got beat by one goal in close, low-scoring games, that was a real rush for Tech fans.
Since then, they’ve scored five goals in three games, and one of them was an empty netter. And their record is 1-1-0-1.
In the last couple of years, a new term has crept into the sports lexicon, and it apparently has come out of the now statistics-crazed world of baseball. Baseball pundits keep looking at players who have a good season after a few lesser seasons, and then suggest that the player will “regress to the mean” in the following year.
What they really mean is that one good year is just an anomaly, and most players will almost always deliver less in the future. It’s a lot like the old “Sports Illustrated Cover” jinx. It seemed (and some sophisticated analysis supported this) that once an athlete was featured on the SI cover, they would then fall off in performance after that, which suggested that a coveted cover appearance was some kind of curse.
Of course, that’s not really the case if you think about it. The SI cover usually is reserved for an athlete that has reached the peak of his or her career. To think that about half of those so honored would rise above that and about half of those would fall isn’t realistic. Only a very small number — like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, for example — would follow up a top notch performance with more of the same.
Is that what the Huskies will do this season? Will they fall back to the kind of nip and tuck squeak-by-every-night play we’ve seen for the past few years? Despite having a solid cohort of experienced and older players, that isn’t what most expected this year. And to be fair, five games isn’t enough to condemn the rest of this season to mediocrity.
Or A Potential Critical Lesson?
Another aspect of sports that comes to the fore time and again, and in hockey this seems to be particularly true, is that teams infrequently rise from nothing and become champions in a single season. The buzz phrase is that “they have to learn to be champions.”
We’ve seen that in the NHL when first the old Islander teams of the late 70’s suffered several heartbreaking playoff losses before establishing a dynasty. The Red Wings and then the Lightning have both faced that same scenario over the last three decades before winning multiple Stanley Cups.
The Old Dog, despite my regular attempts to look at both sides of things in this column, is an optimist at heart. I’d like to hope — and at least right now, believe — that this Saturday night loss to Clarkson is one of those key miseries that the Huskies simply have to live through before they can reach their potential.
A five minute letdown cost them an important game, a game that will count heavily in the Pairwise Rankings that ultimately determine whether a team will get into the NCAA tournament, the Big Skate, at the end of the regular season and league playoffs. This can be a great teaching tool and learning opportunity for the Huskies.
Champions just don’t let up, nor do they give up. I think Them Dogs have the “never give up part” down pretty well, and now they need to sharpen up on the “never let up” part of that formula for success.
At least that’s what I’m going to put my faith in for now.
Tech’s CCHA season starts this weekend in Houghton, as the surprising Lake Superior State team comes to town for a two game series. Coach Damon Whitten, who can earn a $2,000 bonus if LSSU can sweep the season series against Tech, has the Lakers playing some great hockey even though graduation and the transfer portal took the best part of his core away after last season’s Sauer Cup playoff championship win in the final WCHA season.
Tune in and turn on (you can skip the drop out part — the Old Dog does remember that from the 60’s, but not everything else, because I was there) and see what happens. Both games will be available on the usual feeds — audio on WKMJ radio (plenty of ways to connect online) and video on the subscription service from FloHockey.