Michigan Tech (14-9-5) tries to forget about the most frustrating weekend of the year when Minnesota State (14-8-2) comes to Houghton for a two-game set. The Huskies are coming off a pair of ties with Alaska-Anchorage that resulted in three WCHA points, effectively ending their hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. MTU now looks towards the WCHA postseason tournament as their route to games in March. For the second year in a row, the Huskies had no answer for UAA at the John MacInnes Student Ice Arena, leaving them 10 points behind Bemidji State with two games in hand. There is now no room for error for these Huskies, who run into a Minnesota State team who just split with Bowling Green but likely feels like they should have picked up all six points. MSU sits seven points behind MTU and both teams have played 18 of their 28 conference games.
One stat that confounds those of us that watch and cover the Huskies is their 0-2-2 record at home against Alaska-Anchorage the last two seasons. It makes little sense why MTU struggles so mightily at home with an opponent that has given teams other very few problems over the last few years. Ignoring the disturbing trend, however, this weekend is not all that difficult to explain. First, senior goaltender Rasmus Reijola, starting in his ninth and tenth career games, played beyond any expectations. He was at the top of his game all weekend. A surprise starter for the Seawolves, considering Oliver Mantha had started every game since November 4th, Head Coach Matt Thomas looked like the smartest man in the UP for 48 hours.
While I do not want to take away from Reijola’s brilliance, the Michigan Tech offense was the story of the weekend. They were shut down by a career backup in a weekend in which they needed two wins to begin a run at the Beavers’ iron grasp on the top seed in the WCHA. The lack of scoring, especially in desperate situations where the Huskies should have had a distinct advantage, is more than troubling. While we saw Angus Redmond rebound from his weekend in South Bend and return to his elite form, MTU cannot expect him to win games when the guys in front of him average two goals per game against a mediocre defensive team.
The other trend that resurfaced this weekend was MTU’s troubles staying at full strength. Even if you take out Mike Neville’s 27 minutes in penalties assessed at the end of overtime on Saturday, the Huskies still took 14 minor penalties plus Joel L’Esperance’s five and a game for facemasking on Friday. Needless to say, the Huskies looked like a goon squad of sorts, robbing them of the ability to establish a sustained offensive flow that they so desperately need. They likely are taking more frustration penalties because of their inability to score, so Tech may be able to help fix both problems just by doing markedly better with one.
Minnesota State has been consistent over the last two months, albeit not in the way they would like. Since starting the year 5-0 (including sweeping the Huskies in Mankato in October), the Mavericks are 9-8-2 and did not win back-to-back games again until January 6th. Still, they have yet to lose two games in a row, showcasing how remarkably middling they have been against their schedule.
I mentioned last week that the Huskies would be facing a star this week in freshman forward Marc Michaelis, and that is certainly the case. His 28 points lead the team, but is in a bit of a rut as he has only managed two points since the calendar flipped. Tech fans will remember that he torched the Huskies on October 8th, picking up his first three career points—all on the power play—in that 4-0 Maverick victory. Supported by C.J. Franklin and Brad McClure, a pair of junior forwards with over 20 points, this is a formidable offensive unit.
On the back end, Minnesota State has turned a corner with junior netminder Aaron Nelson. After 25 uninspired games by sophomore Jason Pawloski and senior Cole Huggins, Head Coach Mike Hastings has turned to the junior for all four games in 2017. He has seized the opportunity, posting a 3-1 record with a sub-2.00 goals against average and a .920 save percentage. While a small sample size, he could minimize Tech’s advantage in net if he is indeed as good as his play this month has suggested.
Minnesota State sports a top-20 offense and defense in terms of goals per game, suggesting that they are a better team than their record suggests. While this does not account for their relatively weak schedule, they are far from an easy matchup. MTU will need to play like they did against Notre Dame to come away with positive results.
Keys to the Game
- Score. They can use their sticks, their opponents’ sticks, the referees, their noggin, it does not matter at this point. They simply have to put the puck in the net, consistently and throughout the weekend. Until the offense starts to play as well as the defense and goaltending has, MTU’s potential is severely limited.
- Understand the situation. Catching Bemidji State is looking more like a pipe dream with every lost point, so the focus this weekend has to be on not letting MSU gain any ground. If the Huskies can hold onto home ice in the quarterfinals and semifinals, that gives them a really good chance of making the winner-take-all championship game. While playing the Beavers in northern Minnesota for that would not be ideal, anything can happen. They need to hold off the Mavericks though.
- Leave some expensive chocolate in the referee’s dressing room. The nation’s 6th-most penalized team needs to do anything they can to get the stripes on their side. In all seriousness, the Huskies have to play a smarter and more disciplined game because the WCHA’s other two top-three teams are both top-20 in the country on the power play. They will make Michigan Tech pay when it matters most.
This weekend pits two teams who have severely underachieved based on their own expectations. I think Minnesota State is a slightly better team from top to bottom, but home ice is a great equalizer. This one smells like a split. I think the Mavericks take Friday’s game 3-1 with the Huskies responding on Saturday night with a 4-2 win. Both games start at 7:07pm ET.