The same weird thing happens again. The Huskies are playing a team from the Upper Peninsula. They lose in overtime in the first game of the series even though they outshoot the other team by a 2-1 margin. And then they take over on Saturday and win going away. Yes, the details are different, but it’s the same doggone thing. Where’s Bill Murray (aka Phil Connors) though? What about Punxsutawney Phil?
No, it wasn’t really Groundhog Day for the Huskies this past weekend, nor was it a dream, but it did seem like déjà vu for Tech as they took four of six points from the Northern Michigan Wildcats in the latest scrum between these two fierce rivals. After scrambling from behind on Friday, they lost in overtime 3-2 in Houghton. On Saturday, on the Olympic sized ice in Marquette, they fell behind 2-1 and then roared back for a 5-2 victory.
That’s almost the same script that played out the week before against Lake Superior State.
Who Is This Team, Anyway?
Before the season started, the Old Dog suggested that Tech had the personnel to excel in the new CCHA, but that they’d have to step up and demonstrate that they belong. And I suggested that Northern and Bemidji State would be two teams that would act as a measuring stick for that potential.
Well, the first NMU series of this season is out of the way, and this coming weekend MTU travels to the far reaches of northern Minnesota to face off against the Bemidji State Beavers. BSU is off to a good start, with a 5-1 record in the CCHA and a 6-4 record overall. The Beavers did face a very tough non-conference schedule that included home-and-home series with both Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota. Both have been regulars in the NCAA tournament and Frozen Four for the past few years, and they are expected to challenge again this year, so the 1-3 result the Beavers got in those games has to be seen in that light.
Really, though, what kind of team is this 101st edition of Michigan Tech hockey? Is it the team that lit up Wisconsin in the season opening series? Is it the team that can’t average two goals a game over a six game stretch? There’s a bit of a dual-personality thing going on and it’s very difficult to figure out.
Nevertheless, there are some things that are clear about the Huskies. First, they are every bit as good on defense as we thought they might be. They’re the #1 team in the NCAA in penalty killing, having yielded just one goal in 27 PK sequences. Their overall scoring defense has allowed only 1.62 goals per game, and that’s third best in the USA. Goalie Blake Pietila has been in the crease for that entire time, and his GAA is 10th best in the country — and one spot ahead of Minnesota State’s Dryden McKay, who’s been touted as the leading candidate for the Mike Richter Award for top goaltender as well as the Hobey Baker Award for best college player period.
So, through nine games, that’s who the Huskies are. A team with a rock solid defense and a flighty, unpredictable offense that can put a ton of shots on the opposing net but only sometimes able to get the puck across the goal line.
This Still Seems Like the Last Few Seasons
While the Groundhog Day analogy isn’t perfect (what is?), this is pretty much the same way Tech has played for the past three years. Some of this was expected; when Joe Shawhan took over as head coach for the 2017-2018 season, there were a lot of holes in the roster. While there was also a good deal of offensive talent at that time, most of that flair graduated in the first two years of Shawhan’s tenure.
In his second season as head man, the Huskies added a freshman class with tons of potential on the offensive end. As always happens in the transition to NCCA Division I play, some of that skill didn’t pan out—but the core group of players has stayed and is now in their senior season. And to be fair, these guys have grown and there’s some real offensive punch in that cohort. Brian Halonen has been a beast this year with 11 points and a +6 rating in nine games. Classmates and co-captains Trenton Bliss and Alec Broetzman both have 7 points and a +3 and a team leading +8 rating respectively — but Broetzman didn’t dress for the series this past weekend.
There’s never been any doubt that Shawhan has a defense-first mindset, and it shows. He’s enthusiastic about offense when he talks about his teams, but the schemes the Huskies play clearly emphasize defense first.
Put Up or Shut Up Time
After the goal drought against Lake Superior State, Shawhan vowed to do something different to get more offense going. While no team can change their personality in just one week, the Old Dog had a difficult time seeing much difference in the way the offense played against NMU compared with the way they played against the Lakers.
Them Dogs get a chance to show us something different this week at Bemidji. The Beavers have three relatively inexperienced goalies and have allowed 3.0 goals per game, and they don’t have the same depth on defense that they had last season. At the same time, BSU has had a real knack for frustrating Tech’s offensive efforts over the past three seasons. A good part of that came from their goalie Zach Driscoll, who transferred to North Dakota and won’t have a chance to again torment the Huskies this weekend. Still, BSU Coach Tom Serratore is one smart cookie and he may have something new up his sleeve for Tech.
Overall, Ye Olde Dogge is getting tired of seeing the same thing and offering you a similar rehash week after week. Mothers in ancient Sparta reportedly told their sons before battle “Come home with your shield or on it” which really meant win a great victory or die trying.
Time for the Huskies to come back to Houghton with a couple of Beaver pelts, or to whimper their way back to the UP with their tail between their legs. No more groundhogs.