The Michigan Tech Huskies are used to the long bus rides from the Upper Peninsula to Detroit.
It’s a trip they’ve made every year since 1965 for the Great Lakes Invitational.
But this year was unique.
After playing in the title game of the GLI — they lost to WCHA rivals Bowling Green 4-1 in the finals — the Huskies boarded a plane instead of a bus and took flight for Nevada, where they took part in the inaugural Ice Vegas Invitational.
And like the title game in the GLI, the Huskies again found themselves with a mixed bag of results — they beat ranked Boston College in the semifinals, but ended up losing to Arizona State in the finals. Overall Tech ended up going 2-2 for the week.
“There was a lot of good play, a lot of growth for a lot of individuals, but also a lot of disappointment,” said Tech head coach Joe Shawhan. “(Losing in two championship games) is a little bittersweet.”
The Huskies started their long week with a 5-2 win over in-state rivals Michigan State. Five different players scored for Tech in the win (Alex Smith, Alex Gillies, Jake Jackson, Gavin Gould and Jake Lucchini). They won the game despite MSU scoring the first goal at the end of the first period to take a 1-0 lead. And though Tech took a 3-1 lead in the second with three straight goals, the Spartans again scored at the end of the second to make it 3-2.
“I’m happy for pushback,” Shawhan said after that game. “We gave up a goal at the end of the first, gave up a goal at the end of the second, but that was the message we had for the players. There’s a tremendous amount of resiliency within our locker room. … The conditioning they held for the break, the ability to come back and have the ability to battle back (was great).”
But in the final against Bowling Green, the Huskies didn’t quite have that pushback the next day. They Falcons won 4-1 despite the Huskies holding a 30-25 shots-on-goal advantage; BGSU goalie Eric Dop made 29 saves.
Still, the Huskies didn’t have much time to stew over that loss. Following the GLI title game, the Huskies hopped on a plane to Las Vegas for two more games — when all was said and done, they’d have played four games in six days. And their first matchup was against ranked Boston College.
The Huskies ended up scoring the first three goals of the first period to take a 3-0 lead but the Eagles got two back in the second to make it 3-2.
However, a goal from Gould that ended up being the difference in the game. The sophomore capped an excellent week (two goals and two assists overall for four points in the four games) with the game-winner, a great shot from the left circle that made it in just under the crossbar and past Boston College goalie Ryan Edquist.
“He’s been tremendous for us,” Shawhan said of Gould, who has eight goals on the season and 17 points. “He’s playing great hockey.”
BC’s Michael Kim scored with less than two minutes to go to make it 4-3 but the Huskies managed to hold on to earn yet another signature nonconference win this season. They’d already beaten Minnesota Duluth and Union earlier in the year when they won the Ice Breaker in Duluth to start the year.
But once again, Tech was unable to make it two wins in a row. Arizona State, riding a seven-goal performance in their semifinal with Northern Michigan Friday, silenced the Huskies in the first two periods Saturday. It was 3-0 through the first 40 minutes and although Tech dominated on the shot chart (38-25) and scored twice in the third period, it was too late for them.
The Sun Devils managed to skate away with hardware, while the Huskies came up empty in both tournaments they played during the week.
“I’m disappointed in the effort, and I know the team is disappointed in both of these championship games,” Shawhan said. “We have a long way to go. We have the talent, we have the skill level, and we’ve shown that we can hold our own against every team. We just need to learn to play consistently against teams that play a difficult and aggressive style of game.”
The Huskies now go into a bye week with an 11-9-5 overall record. They’ve been able to score at times — their 3.05 goals per game is third in the WCHA — but they haven’t been able to string wins together with much consistency.
Aside from the Ice Breaker tournament win, they have just one series sweep this season — Nov. 24-25 at Alaska. And despite playing well against good nonconference opponents, they’ve only got one win against the teams in the top half of the WCHA standings: They’re 0-3 against Bowling Green, 0-2 against Minnesota State and 1-1 against Northern Michigan.
Currently in fifth place in the standings, the Huskies still have a chance to redeem themselves against three of those teams — in the month of February the Huskies play Bowling Green, Bemidji State and Northern Michigan to cap the year (as well as a chance for revenge against Arizona State, who comes to Houghton between the BSU and NMU series).
Clearly, Tech still has plenty of chances to climb the league table and compete for a home ice slot.
Back to (WCHA) reality
It’s all about WCHA play going forward.
After a slate of non-conference games and tournaments during the holidays, WCHA teams only have three remaining series against non-conference foes in the regular season.
That includes Bemidji State at North Dakota this weekend, Minnesota State vs. St. Cloud State later this month, and Northern Michigan gets a visit from Arizona State in February.
Those weekends could provide a slight boost in the pairwise rankings, but for the most part the WCHA’s work in non-conference play is complete — and that comes with good news and bad news. Well, frustrating news for one fan base.
The good news? The WCHA could potentially be a two-team league for the NCAA tournament. That would be quite a boost for the conference after Michigan Tech was the only WCHA entrant in 2017 and that was on the strength of a conference championship.
The frustrating news? It probably requires Minnesota State to lose the WCHA tournament in March. The Mavericks are currently seventh in USCHO’s Pairwise Rankings, while the next best WCHA team, Bowling Green, is 17th.
If the Mavericks win the WCHA title, Bowling Green would still likely be one of the final teams cut from the tournament. But if any other team wins the WCHA championship, it would likely create a two-bid situation with both that team and the Mavericks heading to the NCAA tournament.
— Alaska managed a split with Alabama Huntsville, winning 3-2 Friday but falling 3-1 on Saturday. Defenseman Zach Frye led the Nanooks on the weekend with a goal and two assists.
— On a more somber note for the Nanooks, it was announced late last month that Alaska hockey junior defenseman Jack Weiss will miss the remainder of the 2017-18 season after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. The team said in a release that Weiss has started to undergo chemotherapy treatment near his hometown of Bloomington, Minn., and will continue to do so for nine weeks. Fans interested in supporting Weiss and his family through this fight are encouraged to use the hashtag #StickIt2Cancer.
— Bemidji State’s Michael Bitzer continues to set records. The senior goalie reached another milestone this weekend with the Beavers’ 3-0 win against Lake Superior State, moving into a tie for second in NCAA men’s hockey history with his 20th career shutout. He tied Vermont’s Joe Fallon and is just six behind Ryan Miller’s record of 26. In the process, Bitzer helped the Beavers earn the sweep at LSSU to extend the team’s unbeaten streak to nine games — its longest such streak since 2006.
— Minnesota State earned a sweep at Alaska Anchorage, winning 5-2 and 4-1. Forward C.J. Suess scored three goals in the two in Anchorage. Suess, MSU’s leading scorer (29 points) now got an eight-game point scoring streak as the Mavericks continue their trip to Alaska to take on the Nanooks.
Players of the Week
This week’s WCHA players of the week were Bemidji State senior Kyle Bauman (offensive), Minnesota State junior Daniel Brickley (defensive), Bemidji State senior Bitzer (goaltender) and Bowling Green freshman Connor Ford (rookie).
Players of the Month
The WCHA also announced its players of the month for December. Winning the monthly awards were Minnesota State senior CJ Suess (offensive), Northern Michigan senior Jordan Klimek, Michigan Tech freshman Robbie Beydoun (goaltender).