Series Preview: 52nd Annual Great Lakes Invitational

This weekend, Michigan Tech (12-7-3) heads to Detroit for the annual clash of Michigan schools in the Great Lakes Invitational. The Thursday/Friday tournament features the Huskies facing the University of Michigan, for the third time this season, in the Thursday afternoon game, followed by Western Michigan and Michigan State battling in the later session. The winners face each other on Friday evening for the championship with a consolation game earlier in the day. Let’s take a look at what MTU will go up against on Thursday and then look at what their potential Friday opponents will bring to the table.

The Huskies Pep Band cheers as the teams shake hands following a 3-2 victory for Michigan Tech over Michigan State at the 2015 GLI (Photo courtesy Hannah Kowalewsky).

The Huskies Pep Band cheers as the teams shake hands following a 3-2 victory for Michigan Tech over Michigan State at the 2015 GLI (Photo courtesy Hannah Kowalewsky).

Scouting Report: Semifinals

Michigan Tech faces a familiar foe in the Michigan Wolverines (7-8-1), having gone 0-1-1 against them in Ann Arbor in October. That was a tough weekend, where both games could have easily swung in the Huskies’ favor. That series was the true turning point of the season, however, because Head Coach Mel Pearson, desperate for some consistency in net, took a chance the following weekend by starting freshman Angus Redmond against Northern Michigan. “Beef” has played every minute of every game since, sparking a 1-5-2 Husky team on an 11-2-1 run. Michigan Tech enters this tournament as hot as any team in the nation with a defense that has surrendered one or fewer goals in 10 of those 14 games during this stretch.

Michigan and Michigan Tech players on the bench at the 2014 GLI (Photo courtesy Hannah Kowalewsky).

Michigan and Michigan Tech players on the bench at the 2014 GLI (Photo courtesy Hannah Kowalewsky).

Michigan is headed the opposite direction, having not won back to back games since early November and are 5-7-0 since that MTU series. While the national narrative suggests that the Wolverines are terrible defensively, they have not been as bad as you might think. Although Penn State and Wisconsin put up 18 goals in three games in early December, those two teams have the first and eighth best offenses in the nation, respectively. Michigan’s goaltending is young, but solid. Head Coach Red Berensen has been rotating two freshmen, Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine (both of whom Tech faced in November), along with senior Zach Nagelvoort. With Lavigne having stopped a three game losing streak against Wisconsin in a 4-1 triumph, I would expect Coach Berensen to give him the nod on Thursday afternoon as he searches for defensive consistency and a goaltender to finally claim the starting job.

Michigan’s larger problem has been inconsistent scoring. While the Wolverines have been one of the nation’s most high-powered offenses in recent years, that trend has not continued this season. The Huskies actually have more goals per game, meaning Redmond will not face the usual barrage expected from the Maize and Blue. The Huskies have a more consistent team from front to back, and should be able to capitalize on a mediocre, albeit not horrible, defense. Michigan faced a top-six defense two weeks ago against Penn State and mustered one goal each night. They could find similar struggles in Detroit against “Beef” and company.

Scouting Report: 3rd Place / Championship

When the puck drops between Western Michigan (8-5-3) and Michigan State (4-9-1), Michigan Tech will already know which game they will be playing in, so this game will be a great opportunity to get a chance to see what will be coming at the Huskies the next day. Western is likely the prohibitive favorite to win this tournament with a high-flying offense that is battle-tested by a brutal schedule in the best conference in the country.  The Broncos sit 10th in the Pairwise with a relatively modest record, showing how strong their schedule has been. Their highlights this season include splits on the road with both Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota and a combined 3-0-1 demolition of Ferris State and Bowling Green where they outscored the WCHA pair by a combined 19-10. WMU started hot, winning six of their first nine games, before slowing down a bit and playing roughly .500 hockey since mid-November.

Michigan Tech and Michigan State take their warm-up skates during the 2013 GLI at Comerica Park (Photo courtesy Jeremy Loucks).

Michigan Tech and Michigan State take their warm-up skates during the 2013 GLI at Comerica Park (Photo courtesy Jeremy Loucks).

The Broncos are led by a strong sophomore class, including forward Matheson Iocopelli who is tied for fourth in the nation with 13 goals. Fellow classmen Griffen Molino (F) and Corey Schueneman (D) are among Western’s seven players with double digit points.

Western’s only glaring problem is that, like Michigan, they do not have a starting goaltender. Sophomore Trevor Gorsuch had most of the early season workload, but his sub-.900 save percentage was hard to stomach. Collin Olson, a senior transfer from Ohio State, also struggled in his few starts, which has opened the door for freshman Ben Blacker. After having not played since October, Blacker replaced Olson midway through the first game two weeks ago against North Dakota. He started the second game and made 32 saves in a 3-1 victory. It seems likely that he will play against Michigan State on Thursday. If Western has found something in their freshman netminder, as MTU knows very well, this is going to be a very difficult team to beat.

Michigan State is in the midst of a rebuilding year, but they have been a serious nuisance to quality opponents. They went to Grand Forks and tied and beat North Dakota, played #3 Denver to two tight games, and beat Michigan Tech in overtime last month. They have shown the ability to put the puck in the net, having avoided being shut out all season and have scored two or more goals in each of their last seven games.

The Spartans have a budding star in Mason Appleton (F, So.), whose 14 points leads the team. Goaltender Ed Minney, who beat the Huskies in November, has been inconsistent but has slowly improved as MSU continues to try to recover from the graduation of star netminder Jake Hildebrand. In last year’s GLI, they gave MTU quite a scare in the semifinal game, losing to the Huskies in overtime. They could be a serious threat to Western Michigan on Thursday if the Broncos take them lightly.

My Prediction

Thursday’s game vs. Michigan: The Huskies will play the opener of the GLI with a chip on their shoulder, rightfully thinking that they could easily have two wins against this Wolverine team. MTU is playing much better hockey and have greatly improved since these two teams last met. Michigan has been treading water somewhat, not really showing great improvement the last couple of months. I expect the defending champion to be playing in the 3rd place game on Friday Afternoon. Michigan Tech wins, 4-1.

Friday: Since we do not know who the Huskies will play on Friday, I will make a prediction for both games. Regardless of the outcome on Friday, I expect Coach Pearson to have his team ready to play because it is no secret how important every game is for the pairwise, regardless of whether the MacInnes Cup is on the line. Michigan State has proven to be a thorn in the side of the Huskies and a few other top teams, but I do not think they will beat a Tech team that is much better than when they played earlier this season. Western Michigan is in its first GLI since 2013, when they defeated MTU at Comerica Park. They are the easy choice in this tournament with a proven offense and strong defense. Their goaltending worries me, however.

If you had asked me a week ago who I thought would win the GLI, I would have said Western with no hesitation. For some reason, though, I have a strange feeling that the Huskies are going to win this thing. They have the defense to lock down Western and an offense capable of seizing flow of play. They need to play as well or better than they did in their sweep of Bowling Green earlier this month to win their first GLI since 2012. Against MSU, Michigan Tech wins, 5-0. Against WMU, Michigan Tech wins, 3-2. 

Thursday's game will be at 3:30 ET and televised on Fox Sports Detroit. Friday's 3rd place game is at 3:30 with the Championship at 7:00 ET. The title game will also be on Fox Sports Detroit.