Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Michigan Tech at St. Cloud

Michigan Tech came out playing great in the first period, and as a result, got a few powerplays and had some great scoring chances early.

On Tech's first powerplay, Jimmy Kerr got the puck down low with a lot of net to shoot at, but wasn't able to pull the trigger and score. It was the start of a long night for him. The next shift, he got a great pass from behind the net, and with Jase Weslosky looking over the wrong shoulder, Kerr fired the puck into Weslosky's chest. Midway through the period on the powerplay, Tech worked the puck around beautifully and got St. Cloud out of position. The puck got passed over to Kerr in the exact same spot, where he fired a one-timer, only to have Jase Weslosky make a ridiculous acrobatic save. In the second period, Kerr got a pass on a two-on-one that he tried to one-timer, only to have the puck bounce off his stick and into the corner. By that point, Kerr snapped his stick and threw it across the ice, and really, who could blame him? To cap off the night, he got hurt in the third period.

Anyway, Tech had some great chances in the first period, but couldn't get the lead. If they had, I think it would have been a much different hockey game. Instead, St. Cloud got a powerplay at the end of the period, and capitalized. With less than 20 seconds left in the period, there was a loose puck at about the top of the left circle. A Tech penalty kill dove at it to try and knock it out of the zone, but missed. St. Cloud got control of the puck, and Tech had to scramble with one of their players out of the play. The puck quickly got moved down to Andreas Nodl on the goalline to the left of goalie Rob Nolan. Nolan had just about all the angles covered, but Nodl fired a wrist shot and bounced off the post, landing on the other side of the crease where Ryan Lasch was able to knock it in.

You might say it was a little bit of puck luck for St. Cloud to escape that period with a 1-0 lead, after Tech had so many great chances, and St. Cloud needed a lucky bounce off the post to score. But I think it highlights the difference between the two teams right now. Tech doesn't have a player like an Andreas Nodl that can take nothing and turn it into something. Instead, they were a few times where they had something, and turned it into nothing.

A lot of credit for the first period also goes to Weslosky. Weslosky hasn't played poorly this year, but he was also wasn't making many huge saves at critical times, which has been bad news for a team that struggled defensively and has needed a goalie to bail them out on several occasions. On Saturday, he made a couple of those huge, momentum-turning saves which I think was a huge boost for St. Cloud.

I should also mention that this was Marco Hunt's first series since his bungling of the DU/UND series. I thought he was really bad in the first period, but not that noticeable in the last two periods, which is pretty good for an official. I didn't get a great look at either of the two checking-from-behind majors handed out within 45 seconds of each other, so I can't comment on those. One thing I've noticed with Hunt this year, and it's not a major thing, is that he makes some bizarre choices in the naming of penalties.

The perfect example came in the first period. A Michigan Tech player came rushing down the ice with the puck, with St. Cloud's Garrett Raboin defending. Raboin tried to stand him at the blueline, so he stopped and tried to check at the player rushing at him. He maybe got his elbow up a little bit high. Hunt gave Raboin a two-minute penalty for hooking. Wait, what? I've never seen a player get a hooking penalty while standing face-to-face with an opponent.

At the start of the second period, the game really had a feel to it that whoever scored the next goal would probably win. If Tech scored and gained back the momentum, I thought they would have been able to roll the rest of the night. If St. Cloud scored again, I didn't see Tech being able to score three times to win. Tech's odds looked pretty good when St. Cloud took a 5-minute checking-from-behind major, but as I mentioned, Tech answered back with a check-from-behind about 45 seconds later, meaning a good chunk of the period was played 4-on-4. In kind of an odd choice, Tech had freshmen Jordan Baker serve the five-minute major. I could maybe understand the logic of that if Tech was going to be shorthanded, but four and a half out of the five minutes were going to be played 4-on-4, and Tech voluntarily took one of their fastest, most creative players off the ice. Later that period, Tech did play Baker in a 4-on-4 situation and seemed to do pretty well with him out there.

About midway through the period, St. Cloud extended their lead to two. John Swanson showed an amazing burst of speed to get around a Tech defenseman. He didn't score on the initial shot, but the puck got worked back out to the point, and after Robbie Nolan failed to cover a rebound on the shot from the point, Swanson was able to knock it back in. It kind of makes me wonder how a player as talented as Swanson only has five goals on the season. I know he spent a lot of time playing defense this year because St. Cloud was so weak back there, but it still seems like he should be contributing more offensively.

Things felt pretty comfortable for St. Cloud with a two goal lead. I was interested in seeing how St. Cloud would play in the third period with a lead, since that area has been one of their biggest problems all year. For the most part, I thought they did a decent job of locking things down. They gave up a few rushes, but Tech didn't have the firepower to make them pay for it. St. Cloud's fourth line put together a couple nice shifts, and was rewarded with a goal late in the game. Mary Mjelleli picked up an assist, doubling his season point total.

This was really a make-or-break weekend for Michigan Tech, and unfortunately, I think it may have broken them. A sweep would have moved them ahead of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Duluth and kept them in the race for home ice. Now they're looking like a good bet for 9th place in the league.

St. Cloud on the other hand, has put themselves in a great position. They're back in position for an NCAA tournament bid, and are tied for 5th place in the WCHA. Their series against Wisconsin this weekend will be huge, especially since points will be tough to come by in the last weekend of the season against North Dakota. The Huskies now become huge fans of Michigan Tech. A good performance by Tech against Mankato would give St. Cloud a great shot at home ice, and St. Cloud needs Michigan Tech to stay in the top 25 in the RPI, or St. Cloud will lose their four wins against Tech in the TUC category of the Pairwise.