Three Things I Think: WCHA, Jan. 26

Posted by: Ryan Evans

Both Michigan Tech and Bowling Green had chances to make up ground on first place Minnesota State this weekend, but only the Huskies took full advantage. Tech took all four points from a hard-fought series with Alaska to cut the Mavericks lead in half. The Falcons managed just two points at home against Lake Superior State and now sit three points back of the Huskies and seven back of MSU, albeit with two games in hand on both of them.

We got an all-WCHA final at the North Start College Cup in St. Paul, Minn., with Bemidji State prevailing over Minnesota State for the Beavers’ first NSCC title in their first appearance in the tournament. BSU freshman goaltender Michael Bitzer was fantastic in the two games. More on the Beavers NSCC triumph later.

In other news today, The Mining Journal sports reporter Ryan Stieg is reporting that Northern Michigan head coach Walt Kyle is no longer on administrative leave and is allowed to return to his position behind the bench. Kyle and NMU Associate Athletic Director Bridget Berube were placed on leave last week for mysterious reasons. In Kyle’s absence, the Wildcats lost to and tied Penn State on the road.

Rapid Recap: In league play, Michigan Tech pulled off a pair of one-goal victories at home against Alaska, 4-3 (OT) and 3-2. Senior forward Blake Pietila scored the OT-winner for the Huskies on Friday as part of a three-point weekend. Bowling Green stumbled a bit, splitting with Lake Superior State at home, losing, and winning, 3-1. Friday’s loss was BGSU’s first at home since mid-November. In non-conference action, Bemidji State won the North Star College Cup with a pair of wins over top-10 teams. The Beavers knocked off No. 7 Minnesota-Duluth, 4-0, in the semifinals before stymieing then-No. 1 Minnesota State, 3-1, in the final. The runner-up Mavericks defeated then-No. 17 Minnesota, 4-2, to reach the title game. Without the services of head coach Walt Kyle, Northern Michigan lost, 5-4, and tied, 5-5, Penn State on the road. The Wildcats did win the exhibition shootout on Saturday, though. Finally, Alabama-Huntsville was swept, 2-1 (OT) and 4-2, by the USA U-18 Team at home in a pair of exhibition games.

In the Polls: Minnesota State’s loss to Bemidji State ended the Mavericks’ two-week reign at the top of the poll. MSU checks in at No. 3 this week. Bowling Green held steady at No. 6 and Michigan Tech moved up two spots to No. 8. The Beavers’ tournament win was enough to garner them three votes in the poll.

Minnesota State remains the No. 1 team in the Pairwise, while Bowling Green and Michigan Tech are No. 6 and No. 10, respectively.

(After the jump: My three thoughts on what went down this past weekend in the WCHA)

Three Thoughts:

An Impressive Weekend for Bemidji State

Last week, if I had told you a WCHA team would win the North Star College Cup, I probably wouldn’t have gotten much push back. You just probably wouldn’t have guessed it would be Bemidji State.

In a four-team tournament field comprised of three top-20-ranked teams, Bemidji State was the clear No. 4 coming in, but it was hands down the best team at the Xcel Energy Center this weekend. For the Beavers, the results had to feel good. After so many “close, but no cigar” performances against top teams this season, to put together back-to-back complete performances and shut down two top-10 teams and two of the better offensive teams in college hockey is encouraging as BSU prepares for the WCHA’s stretch run.

Freshman goaltender Michael Bitzer was especially fantastic, turning away 54-of-55 shots to earn tournament MVP honors. He made 26 saves in the championship game against Minnesota State, including a penalty shot against MSU’s Dylan Margonari late in the third period that effectively sealed the game.

The Beavers as a whole, though, played outstanding hockey. They never allowed the high-powered Mavericks to get going. Coming into the championship game, Minnesota State had scored two or more goals in 16-straight games and hadn’t allowed more than two in nine straight. Likewise, Minnesota-Duluth had only been shutout once all season before facing BSU, and that was back in mid-November.

With Bemidji State just three points back of a home ice spot for the WCHA playoffs, these are the types off efforts it needs to build on as the season winds down.

Michigan Tech Takes Advantage of Opportunity

With Minnesota State at the NSCC, Michigan Tech capitalized on its opportunity to close the gap a bit in the race for the MacNaughton Cup. The Huskies put together a pair of nice games against a tough Alaska team to seize the sweep and now trail the first place Mavericks by four points with 10 games to go. The two teams will meet head-t0-head one more time during a two-game set in Mankato, Minn., Feb. 27-28. Be sure those contests are circled on the calendar.

The sweep is Michigan Tech’s first at home since beating Alaska-Anchorage in back-to-back games Nov. 7-8. Three Huskies forwards notched three-point weekends in the wins: senior Blake Pietila (2+1), senior Tanner Kero (1+2), junior Alex Petan (1+2), and freshman Joel L’Esperance (2+1).

Not only did Michigan Tech make up some ground on the Mavericks, but it separated itself a bit from Bowling Green. The Falcons are now three points back of the No. 2 spot after splitting with a suddenly-hot Lake Superior State team. The Lakers are 4-3-1 since the start of the Florida College Classic and have won three of their last four in league play. They went into Bowling Green and beat a BGSU team that hadn’t lost at home since Nov. 14. As mentioned earlier, the Falcons do still have two games in hand on the No. 1 and No. 2 teams, but will still have to hope for some slip ups from the Minnesota State and Michigan Tech if they want to be league champions.

Northern Michigan’s Defense Continues to Struggle

You knew that Northern Michigan’s defense wasn’t was good as its early season numbers suggested, but it can’t be as bad as it was against Penn State if the Wildcats want to stay in the race for home ice.

The NMU offense took advantage of the Nittany Lions’ shaky goaltending in both games, scoring a season single-series high nine goals on the weekend, but the defense was unable to make that effort hold up. Northern Michigan held leads of 3-0 and 4-1 on Friday and 4-1 on Saturday, but didn’t come out of the weekend with a win. That will happen when you get out-shot, 117-59. The Wildcats goaltending did its best, turning in a respectable .915 save percentage for the weekend despite the barrage of shots on goal.

The Wildcats are winless in their last four games and have won just once in their last 12 (1-6-5) since starting the season 8-3-1. In that stretch, they have allowed a WCHA-worst average of 3.58 goals per game and next-to-last 36.25 shots on goal against per game. Despite all of that, Northern Michigan remains tied with Ferris State at 16 points for the No. 4 spot in the conference.

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