Two down, twelve to go — that’s Michigan Tech’s agenda after sweeping Lake Superior State in Sault Ste. Marie this past weekend. After posting two straight 3-0 wins over the Lakers, the Huskies will continue this week against arch-rival Northern Michigan in the always-intense cats-and-dogs home and home series starting Friday night in Marquette.
That series will be Tech’s second step in the rest of this season’s schedule that consists of two games against every team in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Those 14 games will, in large part, determine whether Tech sinks or swims in their quest to reach the NCAA tournament.
Takin’ Care of Business
After two strong performances against Lake State, they may be reaching the form that they need to solidify their current stature as a strong NCAA tournament candidate. There were a lot of good things to take away from this series.
While each night against the Lakers was a bit different, there was one constant both evenings. Tech played at a very high level on the defensive end, something that’s developed into both their identity and signature style. Blake Pietila notched two straight shutouts, and, combined with his shutout of LSSU on November 6th, became the first Tech goaltender to ever record three straight goose eggs against the same team.
On Friday, the Huskies were dominant for the first 15 minutes of the opening period and were rewarded with a 1-0 lead when Brett Thorne rocketed a shot off the post and into the net on a Tech powerplay early in the period. As the period came to a close, LSSU started to roll and nothing came easy for either team after that. Brian Halonen poked in a rebound in a four-on-four situation in the second period, and Justin Misiak added a beautiful empty net goal in the final minute of the game.
It was a bit different on Saturday. The Lakers played a much more physical game, but Tech responded with their best defensive effort of the season. Although they gave the puck away in their own end a few times, they otherwise completely smothered the Lakers, who had only a couple of serious chances in the entire contest — and only managed 11 shots on goal in the entire game. Still, the Huskies couldn’t get on the score sheet until the middle of the second period. Logan Pietila (in the second period), Eric Gotz and Alec Broetzman (both in the third) all tallied powerplay goals for the 3-0 total.
With that sweep — and some losses by other top teams — Tech rose to the 11th spot in the national Pairwise Ranking and third place in the CCHA. They are also currently fifth nationally in goals-against per game, fourth in powerplay success, third in penalty kill percentage, and are the third least penalized team as well.
While all of this is great news, the offensive output of this year’s team is still something that needs work. Over the past four games, Tech has only 2 five-on-five goals (both against Michigan State in East Lansing). Even when they are controlling the game and getting good shots the way they did this past weekend, they just don’t seem to be able to find the uncovered spots that goaltenders yield.
The Huskies are averaging 3.1 goals per game, which is mediocre at best when compared to the other top tier teams in the Pairwise Rankings. 26% of their goals have come on the powerplay — which is great — but given the total number of goals scored, it just highlights their offensive shortfall when playing five on five hockey.
This really comes across when you look at Tech’s shot attempts-to-goal ratio. It’s about 5.1%. That means, on average (and averages can be deceiving) the Huskies need to have 60 or more shot attempts (not shots on goal) to get to three scores.
If you look at actual shots on goal, things are a bit sunnier. They are converting 9.6% of their shots that actually have a chance to go in, which means they need to average 32 shots on goal per game to get three tallies.
None of that is terrible, but it’s just middle-of-the road for the NCAA in this era of the sport. When you balance all of this out, it means that watching just about any Tech game will be a nail biter. They’ll almost always play great defense, but only occasionally light it up offensively.
To paraphrase what Coach Joe Shawhan likes to say, “Defense is like a dog, it always comes when you call, but offense is like a cat. It comes and goes as it pleases.” The Huskies, true to their dog-ness, are just like that.
That wouldn’t be terrible, except for one other statistic for the Huskies. They are only 2-7 in one goal games, mostly due to their 1-5 record in three-on-three overtime.
Cats and Dogs Again
That all echoes in the Old Dog’s perked-up ears as this week’s series against Northern Michigan approaches. The Cats are just like Shawhan says, they are mostly about offense. The Wildcats have been outstanding at times, as they were just that in sweeping a depleted but still dangerous Minnesota-Duluth team just before the holidays, and again last weekend in getting a split against #1 Minnesota State.
Tech can’t let NMU’s fifth place station in the CCHA fool them. Even though Tech is 8 points ahead of Northern and has two games in hand, the Wildcats have all the ingredients to win both games this weekend. As I said, they can score; they have the number two scorer in the nation, portal addition Hank Crone. They also have the #6 scorer in the NCAA, A.J. Vanderbeck, and are averaging almost 3.9 goals per game. Their shots on goal conversion is 13.6% — much higher than Tech’s ratio.
The Cats can be had, though, because, well, they aren’t dogs with respect to defense. They give up plenty of chances for their opponents to score, and they lean heavily on goaltender Rico DiMatteo — who has a .893 save percentage. (Blake Pietila owns a .921 save percentage.) And they suffered a huge loss this past week, as captain and key forward Joe Nardi went down with a season-ending injury.
So, what will it be? Solid Dogs over the streaky and volatile Cats? Or Cats clawing the Dogs? While almost every Tech game is a nail biter, this is a series that may lead to chewing on your knuckles after your nails are gone.