It's that time of the season where nobody really knows the full capabilities of any particular WCHA team. Preseason coaches polls set the initial expectations then a smattering of a couple of non-conference games and a couple of conference games begin to define what each team's potential might be. MTU and UAA find themselves at an early crossroads. Is it the basement again for one? Both? What happens this weekend could help clarify the situation. The Seawolves find themselves sporting some reasonably nice statistics after the first six games. The guys that we hoped would be contributing are doing exactly that. The power play has looked good. The penalty kill (while tested far too often) is doing the job. Goaltending looks solidified. Youngsters are showing promise. Upperclassmen are showing leadership. The potential seems high.
Much of the same can be said about the WCHA's original Huskies. Their team stats don't look as good as UAA's but let's face the truth here. There hasn't been enough games for anyone to lay claim to anything based on the early stats. One good or bad weekend can skew those numbers hugely. I'm pointing this all out because I've looked at MTU's performances so far this season and I don't think their 8% power play is probably indicative of how their power play will look later in the season. They've got an 88% kill rate on penalties. Knowing that Head Coach Jamie Russell favors a defensive style I'd say the 88% number is probably a number that will be challenging to overcome.
This year's Huskies are fairly balanced in terms of class ranking; 9 seniors, 5 juniors, 4 sophomores and 9 freshmen. They aren't a small team (5th in weight, 17th in height versus the Seawolves who are 4th in height and 1st in weight). The surface at the Mac is narrow at only 85ft but has the same length as the Sully (200ft). I haven't found anyone calling the Huskies a fast or excellent skating team but I assume that the Seawolves won't have any huge advantage in that area.
MTU's primary offensive threats look to be from #9 senior Malcolm Gwillam, #22 sophomore Jordan Baker and #14 freshman Alex MacLeod. They are several key injuries at the moment that look to have an impact this weekend. John Schwarz, Ryan Angelow, Bryce Reddick and Justin St. Louis all seem unlikely to play this weekend. As with any team Coach Russell will be looking to other players on the roster to step up and fill in. I expect senior goalie Rob Nolan to play both nights. Nolan is a talented netminder with a career .898 save percentage and a 2.96 goals against average. Pretty good numbers for a 13-32-5 career record.
Expect it to be all about defense this weekend. Jamie Russell has depended on a defensive strategy since taking over the team. No reason to expect anything different this year. Will the Seawolves try to open up the game? Not likely. Virtually every coach in the WCHA takes his team on the road with the idea of playing a tight defensive game. Unless of course you count Bob Motzko when he takes his team from their olympic sized sheet to the smallest rink in the WCHA at Duluth and then tells the media he's going to let his players be creative and try to open it up. I laugh everytime I think about that stupid statement (what? did you think I wasn't going to bust SCSU's chops?) ... brilliant Bob.
I think these games will look much like last weekends games versus Duluth. Lots of blocked shots. Lots of physical play. Good goaltending. So what does all that mean? It means the difference between winning and losing will likely turn out to be ... drum roll please ... special teams. That's right. The same mantra again. We know the refs are going to call the games tightly. The team that stays out of the box is going to have the upperhand. The team that converts on its power play chances while effectively killing their own penalties should come out on top.
Success in the WCHA as overwhelming defined by the league coaches is to win at home and split on the road. UAA got 3 points at home. Come out of Houghton with 2 points and we'll be on track right?
The MTU Huskies are the 3rd Huskies named team that the Seawolves have faced this season. What is with all these teams outside of Alaska naming their sports teams after a breed of dog that became famous for pulling sleds in Alaska? It wouldn't surprise me if they have a mascot named Balto. Dave Shyiak is quite familiar with MTU from his time in Marquette. NMU and MTU have a long time rivalry with each other that is quite similar to the rivalry between UAA and uaF. The fans don't like each other. The student sections from each school have been known to be quite raunchy in their taunting of the other's team. Their favorite taunt when UAA comes to town is the tired old chant ... What's a Seawolf ... clap clap ... clap clap clap. Yes ... rgo ahead and roll your eyes now.
NOTE: These games are not on TV. I assume that "Splash Zone" on GoSeawolves.com will have them available. If not then check the MTU website for their Internet offering.