In sports, some teams seem destined for greatness from the start. A mix of talent, smarts and coaching all seem to mesh from the first game of a new season, and while nothing is ever perfectly smooth, the wins flow and the march toward a championship is continuous.
For other teams, those same factors don’t quite fit together. Or perhaps a key element is simply missing. It takes time and requires repeated failure to wring out the potential that a team possesses. It’s not easy to watch, and at times, the path a good or even great team follows can be agonizingly difficult for the players, the coaches, and the team’s fans. These teams grow and succeed.
And finally, some teams that have potential never get to the level that seems possible. The result is a disappointing mass of “better than mediocre,” but not quite “good” — and certainly not “great.”
The Huskies are probably somewhere along the second route and may end up on the third road. It’s clear, though, that this team didn’t start the season with all of the ingredients needed to be among the nation’s best teams.
Facing Minnesota State
Ever since Penn State started their DI hockey program and the Big Ten finally had six teams for an NCAA conference, Michigan Tech has been competing in a league that has been dominated by Minnesota State. Yes, there have been some digressions. The Huskies and MSU were co-winners of the MacNaughton Cup during the 2015-2016 WCHA season, and Tech also won the WCHA Playoff crown in 2016-17 and 2017-2018. Ferris State won a MacNaughton Cup in 2013-14, while Bemidji State took possession of that oldest championship trophy in college sports in 2016-17.
Still, during that time, the Mavericks from Mankato were the most powerful team, with the best talent and probably the best coach in Mike Hastings. For the past four years, the final chapter in the men’s WCHA, they’ve won the MacNaughton Cup each year and were barely challenged during that time.
This past weekend, Tech traveled to Mankato to face the #2 ranked Mavs and came up short of what they really needed. On Friday, they played a great road game but lost (again!) in overtime 2-1. The Huskies got a short-handed goal from Logan Pietila, and his brother Blake put on a show in goal to keep the game to a 1-1 regulation tie. While Mankato controlled the play and pinned Them Dogs in their own end for much of the game, a breakaway chance for Brian Halonen with just seconds left in the third period was stopped by the NCAA all-time shutout leader Dryden McKay and sent the game into overtime.
In overtime, the Huskies were miserable failures. In less than a minute, they made three glaring mistakes, and in the contrived 3 on 3 game that the NCAA has instituted for overtime, the Mavs got a clear shot on net and Blake Pietila’s magic had run out. Tech got one point and MSU got two in the CCHA standings.
Saturday’s game started the same way, with MSU controlling the play. They picked up a powerplay goal in the first period and capitalized on a Husky error early in the second to lead 2-0. But the Huskies seemed to respond after this, and then largely carried the play for the rest of the game. An unassisted powerplay goal from Justin Misiak brought Tech within a goal, but despite pressure from Tech, McKay was up to the challenge. MSU added an empty net goal with just ten seconds remaining and that was the weekend that was.
Final tally in the standings: Minnesota State gets 5 points, while Michigan Tech gets 1. With that result, Mankato is once again rated the #1 team in the country.
Just the Same or Not?
Tech’s play in the second half of the Saturday game was something Husky Nation really hasn’t seen since the year they were co-champs with the Mavs. Them Dogs showed they have the skill and talent that’s needed to go head-to-head with Mankato — although one and a half periods in a six period series isn’t conclusive. So, it’s hard to make the case that Tech is approaching parity with the big bad Purple Cows.
At the same time, Northern Michigan swept Minnesota-Duluth, the previous #1 ranked team, and made a big statement that the Wildcats, after a shaky start (including a blowout loss to Minnesota State), are back in the mix in the CCHA.
Where does this leave the Huskies?
The Key Ingredients
When you look at Tech’s roster and consider the way they’ve played in 13 games this season, it’s clear they have a high level of talent. Their best players, though, aren’t quite as skilled or capable as the best players from their main rivals for the CCHA championship. Bemidji State, Northern Michigan, and Minnesota State all have 3-4 players that are a small but visible bit better than Tech’s best guys. Only MSU has a similar level of depth that the Huskies have, however.
Tech’s defensive corps is better than NMU and BSU. The Old Dog would like to say they are as good as MSU in that department, but MSU probably has a small edge there as well.
The problem that Tech seems to have is a shortage of game intelligence. Although they now rarely make some of the fundamental errors that have plagued Them Dogs over the past 3-4 years, they are still prone to sloppy play in their own end and make critical, flawed decisions at key points in games against teams with equal or better talent. Not all of those end up in Tech’s net, but too many do. And those same errors in the other end never result in goals. When you are playing again and again in one goal games, those kinds of things matter a great deal.
How much of that is on the players and how much is on the coaching? Overall, the schemes Joe Shawhan and his staff are using appear to be sound — although there is one thing that irritates the Old Dog no end about the Huskies’ system (more on that in a second). This means it’s likely there’s something in the lightning quick thinking required in hockey that Tech’s team just doesn’t quite get. That tends to be hard to change in a college level player; it’s either there or it’s not. Since most of Tech’s lapses lead to goals against, that means Tech simply has to score more. It’s been the same story for quite some time now, and, against the best teams, is still the barrier that the Huskies need to overcome.
One Scheme Suggestion
There is one thing that Tech doesn’t do that the Old Dog believes is a huge failure in the offensive end. While Shawhan constantly talks about “hard ice” goals, it seems he’s talking about crashing the net and trying to jam in rebounds. No doubt, Them Dogs are better at that part of the game this season, but there’s another “hard ice” issue that is conspicuously absent.
If you watched the Mankato series this weekend, you never — and I mean never — saw any forward setting up in front of the net, sticking their rear end in McKay’s face to obstruct his view. You hear it all the time on NHL broadcasts and it’s just as true in the NCAA. If you give a top goalie a good view of the puck, you are not going to get many across the goal line. Nor are you going to get any tip-in goals. The Old Dog occasionally saw a forward in the high slot last weekend but literally never just in front of the crease. In fact, I can only remember one play in the last few games when that happened, and it resulted in a fat rebound and a Tech goal.
For the life of me, I cannot understand why this team, especially with the repetitive mantra of “hard ice goals” doesn’t do that.
All of these things continue to make me wonder if Tech is learning and progressing to the level needed to be an NCAA tournament team, or if they are just hoping to get in with a hot streak in the CCHA playoffs. They remain in the 12th spot in the RPI, but they keep sliding a bit each time they play a good team, and, unless they start sweeping some of those series, they won’t have a shot at an at-large berth in the tournament.
Unfinished Business Before the Holidays
The Huskies simply must sweep their next series with St. Thomas in Houghton this coming weekend, their last games before the holidays. St. Thomas, in their first DI season after decades of top level DIII play, are 1-17 so far. Any hint of letting the Tommies up off the mat will be a less-than-desirable way to head into the coming break.
Nothing seems to come easy for this team, though, so the Huskies need to bear down and never give UST any room to breathe. That’s the mark of a team that’s learning to win on a consistent basis. So far, the Huskies haven’t been that kind of team. They weren’t born with that set of skills — they have to work for everything they get.