Now that the Great Lakes Showcase is concluded, and the Old Dog has grumbled enough about the format, it’s time to reflect a bit on the first half of season 2021-2022 for Michigan Tech hockey. At this, the halfway point in the season, the Huskies’ record is 10-8-1 overall, and 7-5 in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association standings, good for 23 points and third spot. They are 1 point behind Bemidji State but have a large 12 point deficit behind the kings of the hill, Minnesota State.
The Ties Are Killing Me
If you look deeper (and the Old Dog always sniffs more than once), this is a team that loves ties. In the NCAA view of the world, which is what the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and Pairwise standings look at, an overtime loss doesn’t really count as a loss, nor does an overtime win count as a win. An overtime loss is 45% of a win, while an overtime win adds up as 55% of a win. Of course, the opposite is true for losses, too: 55% of a loss for an OT loss, and 45% of a loss for an OT win. (Shoot out wins and losses count as straight ties, although CCHA points are at stake.)
Tech’s record from this perspective looks quite a bit better. So far this season, Them Dogs have finished regulation time in a tie 7 times in 19 games, which mean an almost absurd 37% of the Huskies’ games have not been decided in 60 minutes of play. In those overtime sessions, Tech has won once, tied once, and lost all of the other five contests.
If you do the math (and it can take some effort), that yields an “NCAA” record of 12.3 equivalent wins and 6.7 losses. Or, if you prefer old-time hockey, where gimmicky 3 on 3 overtime was never played, the Huskies stand at 9-3-7.
The National Picture
All of that statistical stuff is just that — statistical stuff — and what really matters is where Tech sits in the RPI, which is the primary tool used to select NCAA tournament teams. The whole computation gets very complex, and here is what USCHO.com says about it:
Factors involved are 1) the team’s winning percentage; 2) the average winning percentage of the team’s opponents; 3) the average winning percentage of the team’s opponents’ opponents. These factors are multiplied by 25%, 21%, and 54% respectively and the contribution of each individual game is weighted by a factor of 1.2 for a road win or home loss and 0.8 for a home win or road loss. In addition, a quality wins bonus based on wins against the top 20 teams is added to a team’s RPI.
Team RPI is adjusted to remove negative effect from defeating weak opponent.
To that I’ll add just one more thing. If you understand what the “negative effect from defeating a weak opponent” means, then you understand the RPI system. The Old Dog, having reached his dotage and being barely able to do heat transfer calculations anymore, hasn’t really tried to understand this whole mess. But I accept that it’s done mathematically without any human intervention, and it is what is it.
So, when all of that is added up somewhere on a spreadsheet, the Huskies are at the time of writing in the 13th RPI spot, with a rated winning percentage of 55.22%. Things are tight in that neighborhood, though. Northeastern is in 12th with an RPI of 55.34%, while below the Huskies Ohio State and Nebraska-Omaha are tied, both with an RPI of 54.85%. Overall strength of schedule provides the tiebreaker in this case, placing Ohio State in 14th and Omaha in 15th.
All of this means that the spread between getting an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament and staying home is razor thin, and every time an NCAA game is played between any two teams, these numbers can and usually do change.
The bottom line, though, is simple. Just win, baby, and the RPI will take care of itself.
The Ties Are Killing Me (Part 2)
The Huskies’ performance in 3 on 3 in overtime is, by any standard, not very good. The results have been disheartening to Husky Nation to say the least.
For what it’s worth, here’s the Old Dog’s take on why the Huskies fail — and look bad while doing so. I don’t think the team really understands the most important tactics in 3 on 3 hockey. Whether you are watching 10 year old squirt hockey or the NHL, the dynamics of this situation are about the same.
To get the puck sliding, let’s start with a fundamental principle: the team with the best three or four offensive skaters has an outsized advantage in 3 on 3 given all of the space available to maneuver. Since Tech’s strength is defense and the Huskies’ offense, while deep, has only had a clear talent advantage once all season (against St. Thomas — the single OT game they won).
Once that’s known, the primarily rule is get the puck and keep possession. This means you should not dump the puck to get a line change, you should not force a rush against well-positioned opponents, and you should never shoot the puck unless you have a high percentage shot. What’s “high percentage?” You should think “75% chance of scoring” at a minimum. This usually means wide open, within the zone defined by the goal crease and inside the two face off dots. Even being at one of the dots is dicey.
This means that you have to master two arts: circling around with the puck when you have possession, in a sort of whole-ice cycle, and making passes not only forward but backward, thereby forcing the other guys to skate endlessly and get tired doing so.
The second rule applies when you lose possession. Now, the shoe is on the other foot. You have to play conservatively, and make sure you are always defending the high percentage zone. Let the other guys skate around endlessly and get tired trying to maintain possession. Yes, one forechecker is necessary to keep them honest, but forechecking (or tightly backchecking over the entire defensive zone) with all three players is a fool’s errand and rarely works. Knowing how to change on the fly when you don’t have possession is also critical. No one should ever cruise to the bench; skate as hard as possible to minimize exposure to a 3 on 2 situation.
Will all of this slow the game down, make it boring to watch, and more likely to end up in a tie? The answer is yes. And to be honest, Tech has never proved overpowering in shoot outs, but the small RPI benefit of losing in a shootout is better than losing in 3 on 3. And sometimes the other team will make a mistake and you’ll get a win.
In most ways, this is just not the same way that 5 on 5 hockey — or powerplays, or 4 on 4 hockey — works. So, how has this played out in Tech’s seven OT games?
Against St. Thomas, they had the offensive skill advantage and won. Against Michigan this past week, both teams played rather undisciplined hockey in overtime, and, with both goalies making spectacular saves, the game ended in a tie. Both teams violated these “rules” repeatedly.
In the other five OT losses, Tech has made the same kinds of blunders repeatedly. They’ve dumped the puck way too often (in fact, they threw it away once after winning the opening faceoff in order to retreat defensively and never got it back). They’ve taken long shots unlikely to get past any college-level goaltender. And their on-the-fly changes have almost always come when they don’t have the puck — and some of those have been just a tad slow. That works fine when teams are at full strength, but the reality of 3 on 3 is entirely different.
Yet Tech regularly persists in playing the same way they do in regulation. Too often, these actions have resulted in goalie Blake Pietila facing point-blank or wide open shots in the critical area in front of the Huskies’ net, and five times these have gone in. Game over, man!
The Future is NOW!
All of that is in the past, and there’s nothing that can be done about it except learn some lessons. The Huskies have proven they can play with anyone, even Minnesota State, and could be jousting with the Mavericks if they can get their offense rolling.
Them Dogs are idle this week, then return to action on January 14th when they travel to the Soo to play the fourth place Lake Superior State Lakers. LSSU is 3 points behind Tech in the CCHA standings, but Tech has two games in hand.
With 14 games left to play, each one a CCHA tilt, every single game and every single point matters. With Minnesota State, rated #1 in the country in both the polls and the RPI ahead of them, and Ferris State and St. Thomas well below the rest, the other five teams in the CCHA standings are all in the mix for home ice in the playoffs. And, finishing second probably means a series against Ferris State or St. Thomas, which is worth fighting for.
Just as I said in my preseason assessments of the Huskies, this team can play defense. They are 7th in the country in goals against (2.05 goals per game). At the same time, they are ranked 22nd on the offensive side (3.11 goals per game) but that statistic is inflated by 10 goals in the series against Wisconsin, 12 goals in the series against Ferris State, and 6 goals in the first game against St. Thomas. Take out those five games, and Them Dogs are averaging just 2.0 goals per game.
All of that stuff about overtime is moot if Tech can just score one more goal in most of their games. The first weekend at LSSU will give us our first look at the Huskies during the coming stretch run. There are no more preliminaries; the remaining games will tell us if this team fulfills the promise they suggested back in October.