The biggest series of the year in the WCHA is in northern Minnesota when the Michigan Tech Huskies (16-9-7) visit the Bemidji State Beavers (16-11-3). Michigan Tech is coming off a five-point weekend against Alabama-Hunstville, where they were lucky to come away with that many points. Regardless, MTU cut the Beavers’ lead in the WCHA to just four points with three weekends remaining. MTU has not lost since January 7th in South Bend and is now 3-0-4 since. Bemidji, meanwhile, has had a rough 2017 with a record of 2-4-0 in January.
The Huskies are enjoying an outburst in scoring, tallying at least four goals in each of their previous four games. I have been saying all year in this space that if their offense comes alive, they will not be a team anyone wants to play because of how formidable their defense is. While it is more than reasonable to be cautious about the last two weekends' production, any sign of life from the underachieving forwards is good news.
As has been the Huskies’ MO this year, the catalyst of the scoring has been from the defensemen, and in particular, Mitch Reinke. He has a goal in each of the last three games and is on a four-game point streak. At this point, we can only expect so much from the forwards so this consistent contribution from blueliners will be necessary to win games. Sophomore forward Jake Lucchini continues to be the best source of scoring for MTU, becoming the first Tech player with double digit goals this year when he tied Saturday’s game with 11 seconds remaining in the third.
One thing I want to touch on is whether freshman netminder Angus Redmond can continue his incredible year considering his heavy workload. He has played every minute of every game since his first start on October 28th, which few goalies in the nation have done, let alone a freshman. While his goals against average and save percentage this season are well beyond his career highs in junior hockey, he has proven plenty capable of playing every night: in the previous two years with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in the BCHL, he played a combined 91 games.
I only question this because he has given up three or four goals in half of the eight games in January, not quite the near-dominance he showed earlier in the year. The most reasonable conclusion is that fatigue is not really the main factor. Instead, some natural regression along with somewhat better competition is my explanation. Redmond and the defensive corps continue to be elite and should stay that way, which may result in some Mike Richter Award consideration for ‘Beef.’
Bemidji State has seen their lead in the conference slowly erode as they made it a habit to split nearly every WCHA series over the last two months. With a disastrous weekend, they could surrender the top spot, a place they have had at least a share of since the first game of the season. BSU and MTU are extremely similar teams in that they have had a hard time finding the back of the net but have been buoyed by a strong defense and an incredible goaltender. For the Beavers, that is junior goalie Michael Bitzer. Bitzer’s 1.65 goals against average is second in the nation (behind leader Angus Redmond) and his .932 save percentage is seventh in the nation.
While the Beavers continue to be strong defensively, their offense is nothing short of putrid. They score 2.21 goals per game, good (in a rhetorical sense only) for 7th worst in the nation. In the North Star College Cup last weekend, they mustered all of one goal en route to losses to Minnesota and St. Cloud State. In December, they scored exactly one goal in six of their eight games, going 1-4-1 in those contests. Clearly, their lack of scoring has proven to destroy any chance of them securing an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but they do have the defense and goaltending to steal games regardless of offensive output.
Keys to the Game
- Win the special teams battle. These are two similar teams with power play and penalty kill numbers both within 1.2% of each other. If MTU can keep special teams goals to a net neutral, I like their chances of winning these games at even strength.
- Limit BSU’s shot attempts. This is a team so hard-pressed to score that if Michigan Tech can keep Bemidji from taking many shots, they are unlikely to capitalize on minimal opportunities. On the flip side, MTU needs to generate as many chances as they can considering the caliber of goaltending they are seeing this weekend.
- Get the Beavers tailing. Puns aside, playing with an early lead is paramount: BSU’s last three wins came when scoring first. They are not a team built to come from behind, but are extremely formidable when allowed to defend a lead.
These two teams have headed in different directions the month or so, which has brought them to this newly tight matchup. I am extremely tempted to pick a sweep for Michigan Tech considering their recent play, but in the end I think home ice plus Michael Bitzer delivers the Beavers the three points they need to effectively lock up the WCHA crown. If both of these games end in regulation, I will be surprised. BSU wins Friday night 2-1 in overtime with MTU getting the win Saturday 3-0. Puck drop both nights is at 8:07pm ET.