Power play outage: Huskies hockey focusing on power play while it waits for NCAAs

Michigan Tech goaltender Blake Pietila (31) makes a save during a CCHA semifinal game against Northern Michigan Saturday at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton. Northern Michigan forward Rylan Van Unen and Michigan Tech defenseman Chris Lipe (4) both are involved in the play. (David Archambeau/For the Gazette)

HOUGHTON — With a 4-0 loss last Saturday to Northern Michigan, the No. 13 Michigan Tech Huskies hockey team, for the second straight year, has a chance to focus on itself for a week before worrying about facing an unfamiliar opponent in their opening game of the NCAA Tournament.

While they would have preferred to win Saturday, especially since the game was at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena and against the Wildcats, not playing in the CCHA Tournament championship game is not the worst thing that could happen to the Huskies.

“It is (a good thing) because we have areas that we need to continually address and work on,” said Huskies coach Joe Shawhan. “We’re very fortunate the situation we’re in, and that’s the biggest thing. If we had to have a choice of winning, of making the finals in our league playoffs, and having a chance to play to get in the national tournament, and win the championship, or be in the national tournament, I’d be in the national tournament.

“This gives us a chance to address that in a positive way to gain our focus.”

The Huskies know, after the loss to the Wildcats, that despite a record that far exceeded expectations at 24-10-2, there is a massive hole in their game, the power play. The Huskies, for the season, are just 17-for-128, or 13.3% while up a man. Just as a quick comparison, the Wildcats are 36-for-148 on the man advantage after Saturday night, which is 24.3%.

That 11% difference between the two teams manifested in an Andre Ghantous goal on Saturday night.

“If you get a specialty teams game with Northern this year (this is what happens),” said Shawhan. “Last year would’ve been different. Last year, we would have scored the power play, and been able to get back in the game on the power play and things like that.

“This year, that’s been a struggle for us. So, I just felt that we were chasing the game, from the first period on. But I don’t think we had a chance to push back in the first period with how the game was officiated.”

Michigan Tech has four skaters with 20 points this season, and three more within three points of reaching that plateau. Of the 17 power play goals they have scored, eight have come from either freshman winger Kyle Kukkonen, or junior winger Ryland Mosley.

“We just don’t have the pieces in that area,” Shawhan said. “We have skill. We certainly have skills in different areas and things like that, but power play skill, the ability to effectively, consistently (score), (the) power play has been a struggle all year.

“We have good players. We have good enough skill to win a lot of hockey games, but power play skill is different. That anticipatory quick read, forcing what you want done, instead of reacting to what’s there forcing you. Certain looks that you want to create, and the knowledge to do that. It’s not natural to us.”

Shawhan admits that the coaching staff and the team have tried multiple different ways to get the most out of playing with an extra skater on the ice, but so far, success continues to elude the team.

“We’ve tried every different way you can try,” he said. “There’s still obviously things we can do differently, but it always seems to evolve into the same look. We can do some things in practice, and get effectiveness and say, ‘okay, let’s stick with that.’ Then the next day it starts to look again like it looked the day before. It always evolves into the same look to me when I watch it. So, it’s just how this group of athletes manages that portion of the game.”

Shawhan knows this is the point in the season you need any advantage you can find, in order to have success. He continues to believe that the Huskies can find something that works consistently on the power play.

“Right now is the most important time for it to work,” he said. “So, we’ll still keep working on it, try to find ways to just simplify it, and put some things in the net.”

According to Shawhan, in order for a player to have success on the power play, they have to be willing to open their mind to how game situations become fluid.

“I think the power play is a dynamic of how the mind works,” he said. “I think it’s a lot of anticipatory vision, peripheral vision. Then there is a learned understanding in there, and then learned understanding of what should work and what shouldn’t. Those areas we struggle with.”

As an example of what Shawhan means, the Wildcats feature forwards like Ghantous and A.J. Vanderbeck. The two of them have 10 goals on the power play between them. When you add Kristof Papp and Joey Larson to the mix, the quartet accounts for 21 of Wildcats’ 36 power play goals, which is more than the Huskies have scored as a team this season.

The Huskies are also working this week on other areas of their game, such as turnovers, one of which led to the Wildcats’ first goal on Saturday.

“Those are the concerning things, the concerning things are by some players,” Shawhan said, “some players continually making the game more difficult than it needs to be. That’s what we talked about all the time. That’s what we talked about (Monday). The unforced turnovers, the breakaways, those things like that, that are easily defendable. The poor line changes with individuals that you talk about on the line changes all the time.Those are the things.

“I think that that’s the difference overall, and that’s where it falls on me.”

For all his team’s success, Shawhan still has concerns about the individual choices his players make in noncritical, and critical, situations.

“Some guys fight playing the simplicity, and the hardness, of the game,” he said. “I talk about that all the time. That’s where my impact needs to get better. It has to matter enough within a group.

“The problem we have is that until we get to the point, within the depth of our team, where it doesn’t matter who we’re sitting, for repeatedly making those same mistakes. (Right now), we can’t, so the only way we can do is try to coach it out of them.”


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