Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Winter Carnival Death Trap

Motivation is a difficult thing to predict. With that being said, it's virtually certain that a nationally-ranked team will struggle to get motivated for games against a last-place bunch.

The task is even tougher in a dead building. If there isn't atmosphere and energy in the building, a team can be more prone to playing to the level of its competition.

For UMD, there shouldn't be as many issues as usual during their annual trip to Houghton, Mich.

Yes, Michigan Tech is in last place in the WCHA. A 4-1 win Friday over Minnesota State broke a string of 15 straight games without a win (0-14-1). They have less than half as many goals (54) as their opponents (110). The penalty kill is hitting at under 70 percent for the season.

No sugarcoating here. The Huskies have had an awful season. There have been rumblings in the U.P. about the future of head coach Jamie Russell. In a town that small, there are more than a few unkind things that have been said and easily gotten back to Russell, who is a good guy and a good hockey coach. He just happens to be in a nearly-impossible situation at Michigan Tech, especially when his team is beset by injuries and can't play their normal in-your-face style that got them to a Final Five not too many years ago.

However, this weekend is different. There won't be 2,000 people milling around the MacInnes Student Ice Arena. Instead, the building will be packed, and there will be an atmosphere unlike any other weekend in Houghton.

It's Winter Carnival.

There will be huge crowds, a loud building, and people having a ton of fun. The games are part of a huge weekend celebrating the winter and the immense amount of snow they get in Houghton. Snow sculptures have been under construction on campus for a few weeks now, and they will be in full view all over this weekend. Hotels 50 miles away are booked solid.

When it comes to comparing this to something people are more familiar with, the best we can muster is a football homecoming weekend in the fall. It's very similar, only the setting is snowier and involves hockey instead of football. Alumni come back from all around, and it's a proud weekend for the people of Houghton.

Oh, and Michigan Tech is always tough during Winter Carnival. Just ask any of the last five teams who have visited for Carnival Weekend, because none of them have left with four points, regardless of how bad Michigan Tech has been. 2004 was the last time Tech was swept during Winter Carnival.

Overall, UMD has been there five times before, posting a record of 3-6-1. Michigan Tech is well over .500 all-time in Winter Carnival games.

As you can see, this won't be easy.

It becomes especially difficult if the Bulldogs can't cash in on opportunities. In November, UMD lost a game to Tech despite outshooting them by a more than 2-1 margin. Letting Tech hang around a game is a recipe for disaster, especially when they're amped up by a full and loud home building, something entirely too rare for them in recent years.

On the ice, UMD has to shut down the duo of Malcolm Gwilliam and Superior native Brett Olson, who will burn you if you let them. Jack Connolly and Mike Connolly played well Saturday with new linemate David Grun, and he brings them an edge that allows them to gain more space to make plays. Even better, it seemed Justin Fontaine only made an effective line of Drew Akins and Jordan Fulton better.

On paper, the Bulldogs have too much firepower for Michigan Tech. By a lot. The key will be focus and determination for 60 minutes both games. It's easier said than done when playing a four-win team, but being able to pull it off is a big difference between contenders and pretenders.

Just because Michigan Tech is always a tough out during this particular weekend doesn't mean it's okay to give them points.