Broadmoor or Bust?
Michigan Tech was on bye this weekend, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot going on around the WCHA that affects the Huskies. Lately, the Huskies have been skating well against good teams and taking a position to control their own destiny, but they are in an uphill battle. Due to some struggles earlier in the year, the black and gold will more than likely need to win the WCHA Tournament to be able to return to the NCAA tournament. The bye week is an excellent break to look at what may be best for the team to finish the season. Ultimately, continuing to win is the only way to secure a bid to the NCAA tournament, but what about the rest of the WCHA? What would be best for the Huskies?
Some background information: The teams given bids to the Division 1 NCAA hockey tournament are determined by a mathematical system to be the top teams in the nation, with six automatic bids given to each of the six conference tournament champions. The Pairwise Ranking system (PWR) is commonly reffered to in college hockey because it offers strong projections of the NCAA selection results. Ideally, the top 16 teams in the PWR receive bids; however, a conference champ will receive a bid regardless of their PWR ranking. For those unfamiliar with the PWR in NCAA, you can go here and read more.
Contrary to what Huskies fans may feel in their hearts, they ordinarily do want to cheer for the other high-ranked conference rivals Bowling Green and Minnesota State, especially in non-conference play. The Huskies need them to continue to win both non-conference and conference games, even at the cost of MTU's standing in the WCHA. Due to the math in the PWR, MTU wants teams that they’ve played the most times (i.e. teams in WCHA and Michigan State) to win as many of their other games as possible. While it raises the PWR of those teams, it also raises Michigan Tech’s PWR ranking. There is a connection between a conference’s strong non-conference record and the number of teams from that conference admitted in the NCAA field of 16. This is why the NCHC has a large number of teams ranked highly and why the WCHA does not. As a conference, the WCHA has failed to win against the NCHC and B1G this season. Even one team with a strong non-conference record can raise the whole conference, as Michigan is doing for the B1G. A conference with a lot of parity, as well as a poor non-conference record, will find itself with low overall PWR rankings. That is why fans typically cheer for good WCHA teams to be really good, to the benefit of the whole conference.
That’s ordinarily, however.
MTU is now in the situation to cheer for the underdog against BGSU and MSU every weekend. By being swept by the University of Alaska – Anchorage Seawolves earlier in the year, MTU’s position in the PWR has not, and most likely will not, recover. Tech is currently ranked #23 by PWR, sitting well outside NCAA bid field. The top two PWR teams in the WCHA are equally on the outside looking in (#20t Minnesota State & #20t Bowling Green). This is why there is only one, lone WCHA bid to the NCAA tourney, belonging to the Broadmoor Cup champion of the WCHA Final Five. No other teams from the WCHA will likely crack into the PWR high enough for an at-large bid. The only way that is conceivable is if one of the three frontrunners, BGSU, MSU, or MTU, wins nearly all their remaining games except for the conference championship game. While it looks like the Huskies will undoubtedly have to go through either BGSU, MSU, or both to eventually win the Broadmoor Trophy, moving from their current 3rd place in the WCHA standings to 2nd or 1st, may make the route through the WCHA Final Five easier. And it all starts with their first round match up pairing. As Michigan Tech Head Coach Mel Pearson remarked on last week's Mel Pearson show, “If we just get our one automatic qualifier from whoever wins the playoff championship, then we need to be that team, but we’ll be there in the end”
Luckily, it seems that Coach Pearson has been preparing his team for the WCHA playoffs and beyond. As he would prefer, they’ve had playoff-caliber play over the last several weekends and have been able to keep up with and defeat teams outranking them. This run of difficult games was specifically picked to prepare the team for the playoffs. During the Mel Pearson show on Jan. 18, Coach Pearson noted, “You schedule big games and you play in big games. Those are the quizzes for the big stage.” The recent series at the Great Lakes Invitational, Desert Hockey Classic and hosting Minnesota State have all shown that the team can compete nationally. If the last month was a shakedown for the playoffs, it looks like the team is responding well. The win over MSU on January 16th was the first win for the Huskies in their last 10 meetings with the Mavericks; Yale had a PWR of #10 when Tech took the shootout victory after showing recovering from allowing the first goal in the Desert Hockey Classic Championship. Their wins are being noticed by others too, MTU returned to #17 in the USCHO.com nationwide coaches’ poll last week, and remained there despite the bye week.
It is in many MTU fans' expectations that the team should return to the NCAA tournament again, and there is beginning to be some evidence that the team can compete in the big games. With the last month of high caliber games and another big series this weekend against another highly ranked team for practice, MTU should be well versed when the WCHA tournament comes around. With likely only one path to the big stage, it is Broadmoor or Bust.
WCHA Wrap Up
#7 Lake Superior State University at #1 Minnesota State University
Friday: 0-8, Saturday: 1-5
The Minnesota State Mavericks dominated the weekend by putting up thirteen total goals between Friday and Saturday night. Winnipeg draft-pick C.J. Franklin (F, So. - MSU) had a five point weekend (3G, 2A). While Cole Huggins (G, Jr. – MSU) escaped an early LSSU first period push for a 17 save shutout. Freshman C.J Hayes (F, Fr. – LSSU) scored the lone goal on the weekend for the LSSU Lakers.
Good news for Huskies fans: Although the Lakers have shown they are much improved from previous years, taking WCHA points from Bowling Green and Michigan Tech already this season, the Lakers showed vulnerability over the weekend. LSSU went 0-7 with the man advantage on the power play and allowed an overall 77 shots on goal over the weekend. Lake Superior State will be visiting Houghton for Winter Carnival weekend February 5-6th, 2016. Also of note, freshman forward Jake Hand (0G, 5A) was suspended by the WCHA for two games and will miss the series with MTU since LSSU is on bye this weekend.
Bad news for Huskies fans: The Mavericks have the highest net special teams ratio in the WCHA (+9 for MnSU, compared to MTU’s +4). After a slow start on the power play this season, Minnesota State went 3-10 on the PP this weekend. The Mavericks have the fewest average penalty minutes per game in the WCHA and boast an impressive 88.5% penalty kill. Hidden good news: MTU has already taken three WCHA points from this team this year.
#8 University of Alaska at #2 Bowling Green State University
Thursday: 2-6, Friday:2-6
In another potential WCHA playoff matchup, Bowling Green handed Alaska two more conference losses on their home ice. Brandon Hawkins (F, So. – BGSU) scored three goals and netted two assists for his 16th point of the season (8G, 8A). Hawkins is one of four BGSU skaters with 15 points or more this season. Freshman Brad Duwe (F, Fr. – UAA) scored a pair of goals, one each night for his six and seventh of the year.
Good news for Huskies fans: Bowling Green is currently ranked #20 in the PWR. Since MTU plays BGSU four times this year, wins for the Falcons are good for the Huskies. Tech is traveling to Bowling Green this coming weekend, January 29-30, 2016 for what is being treated by the team and fans as a do or die series.
Bad news for Huskies fans: Bowling Green is going to be a tough match up next week, with a lot on the line. The Falcons boast a league low 1.85 goals against average which will be put to the test by the Huskies league high 2.92 goals for per game this season. The Falcons receive few penalties, which will also counteract Tech’s strength on the power play.
#4 Ferris State University at #6 Bemidji State University
Friday: 3-2 OT, Saturday: 1-1 OT
This weekend saw a pair of very even games for the Ferris State Bulldogs and Bemidji State Beavers, compared to the other match ups this weekend. Bemidji State narrowly edged Ferris State on shots, 66-60 over the course of the weekend. Both teams went 0-6 on the power play. Sophomore Mitch Maloney (F, So. – FSU) scored the game winner 0:47 into overtime Friday for his second goal of the year. Charlie O’Connor (F, Jr. - BSU) scored a late goal Saturday at 14:12 in the third which would be the game tying goal. O’Connor has 11 points on the year (6G, 5A).
Good news for Huskies fans: Bemidji State has a solid non-conference record this year as they have shown strong play against local rivals. All WCHA victories against non-conference teams are good for the league and MTU in the national standings. Look for BSU to put up a better than expected showing in the North Star College Cup next weekend when they look to upset the University of Minnesota in the first round.
Bad news for Huskies fans: Ferris State is knocking on the door. With the three points gained by Ferris State this weekend, MTU and FSU are now tied in the WCHA standings at 22 points apiece. While the Huskies do have two games in hand over the Bulldogs, there is no doubt the Huskies would have preferred to take more than four points from FSU earlier in the season. Neither FSU, nor MTU have a particularly easy remaining schedule, with nearly identical match ups to end the year.