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Diagnosing what ails the Huskies/Inside the Huskies

December 18, 2012
By Stephen Anderson - DMG Sports Writer (sanderson@mininggazette.com) , The Daily Mining Gazette

At least Michigan Tech won't have to see Danny Kristo, Corban Knight and Mark MacMillan again (unless the Huskies face North Dakota in the playoffs).

UND's top line ripped Tech apart to the tune of 15 points, helping the now-No. 7 team in the country to a 10-2 scoring margin in a weekend sweep over the Huskies.

"Overall a disappointing weekend, tough weekend of hockey," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "Maybe the break is coming at a good time for us. We can get away from it and regroup a little bit and look forward to the second half."

But getting away from Tech's 4-10-3 overall record and 3-8-3 Western Collegiate Hockey Association record won't make it look any better.

So what's wrong with the Huskies?

Unfortunately, it's a little bit of everything. Not everything at once. Not one giant problem. Just a bunch of small, nagging, persistent problems that have surfaced during the first half, as evidenced by the wealth of stats you'll read below. Stick through to the end, though, to see why Tech fans still have some reason to be optimistic.

Defense was supposed to be Tech's strong suit with all the key players returning to its veteran unit. Instead, the Huskies are last of the 12 WCHA teams in allowing 3.79 goals per conference game. The 3.71 goals allowed in all games is fifth-worst in the nation out of 59 teams. No player on the Huskies has a positive plus-minus rating, with Riley Sweeney's minus-eight being the worst.

Penalty killing has been a big part of the problem as Tech's 76.6 percent PK success rate is seventh-worst in the country, and 77.6 percent in WCHA games is third-worst. The number of penalties isn't even the problem as Tech is 32nd in the country in most penalty minutes per game (13). It's the timing of penalties, the players taking the penalties (top four in penalty minutes are among the top seven goal scorers) and the sheer inability to kill them off.

"We can't kill a penalty right now," Pearson said after Friday's 6-1 loss to UND. "I can't tell what it is. I thought we turned the corner at Wisconsin a little bit."

Tech did kill all six UND power plays on Saturday, which is maybe a step in the right direction, but when the problem can't even be identified, it's hard to feel confident about finding a solution.

"Our penalty killing has been struggling, and I thought they did a great job, a great effort and it all starts with your goaltender," Pearson said after Saturday's 4-1 loss. "He has to be your best penalty killer and I thought Kevin (Genoe) was tonight in the third period."

Genoe has had his moments, but Tech's goaltending is a big part of the problem, too, namely in terms of inconsistency.

Freshman Pheonix Copley started the year with a huge win over Minnesota but soon faltered. Among WCHA goaltenders who played at least 1/3 of their team's minutes (19 such players), Copley is last in the league with a .855 save percentage.

Genoe is at .907, but he too has battled startling inconsistency. In four road games, Genoe has a .929 save percentage and 2.08 goals against average. In four home games, he has a .861 save percentage and 5.55 goals against average.

He has gotten progressively better as games have gone on, allowing 13 first-period goals, 11 in the second and nine in the third.

Unfortunately, Tech is 0-9-2 when opponents score first, so Pearson needs his goaltenders to start the game solid. Genoe has also surrendered several weak five-hole goals due to persistently moving his stick out of the way, something goalie coach Steve Shields has worked on repeatedly with the senior goaltender.

"We need good goaltending. We have to get consistent goaltending," Pearson said. "That's still an issue with this team. We have to find somebody to step up who can give us a chance to win every night."

Starting the year, the offense showed a lot of promise (15 goals in first three games), but so far it has struggled to 2.65 goals per game (seven goals in the last five games), not terrible (Tech averaged 1.97 two years ago), but still 34th in the nation. The 2.43 goals per game in WCHA games is third-worst in the conference.

The main reason for that - and here's the most startling stat of this column - is that none of Tech's last 25 goals has been scored by an upperclassman forward.

Take a moment to reflect on that.

UND had seven such goals in this past weekend's series alone.

And it's not like the capability isn't there, particularly in the junior class. Ryan Furne scored 12 goals last year (five by this point in the season); he has one so far. Jacob Johnstone scored nine last year (five by this point); he has none. Milos Gordic scored eight last year (seven by this point) - and 15 two years ago; he has two. That's 29 goals last year, and just three this year from those three players.

Sophomore Blake Pietila has made up for it a bit with 10 goals already, matching his freshman year output. Junior Dennis Rix has had five goals; David Johnstone (sophomore), Alex Petan (freshman) and defenseman Steven Seigo (senior) have four; and Tanner Kero (sophomore) and Jujhar Khaira (freshman) have three.

Even some of them have cooled off, though. Petan, for example, had a stretch with 10 points in six games, but he has now gone five games without a point.

So, where's the good news you're wondering?

For one, there have been sparks of brilliance: sweeping Bemidji State on the road, allowing just four goals in two ties at Wisconsin (Genoe stopping 64 of 68 shots) and the aforementioned season-opening win over No. 1 Minnesota.

Secondly, the second-half schedule is much more favorable.

Last year at this time of the year Tech was 9-9-1 overall, but finished the regular season 5-9-3. The schedule difficulty is essentially flipped from last year. Tech "only" has to go 10-8-1 to match last year's output, and the Huskies have the third-easiest WCHA schedule the rest of the way (based on playoffstatus.com projections using the opposing teams' winning percentage of remaining games).

If Tech can get healthy, get its upperclassman forwards in a groove, tighten up defensively and get consistent goaltending - or even two of the above at the same time! - there's still plenty of good that can come of this season. Expectations were set extremely high after beating Minnesota, but let's not forget half this roster was on a team two years ago that won just four games. Really, all it takes is for the Huskies to peak at the right time.

"I like our team. When we get everybody healthy and everybody playing on the same page we can be a pretty good hockey team," Pearson said. "We have a lot of hockey left in the second half and we can make some hay. We have to stick together."

Stephen Anderson can be reached at sanderson@mininggazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/steander and interact throughout the week about Tech hockey with the #mtuhky hashtag.

 
 

 

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