1/8/2016 – Michigan 9, MSU 2 – 12-3-3, 3-1-1 Big Ten
1/9/2016 – Michigan 6, MSU 3 – 13-3-3, 4-1-1 Big Ten
The denigration of the Michigan State hockey program happened gradually and then suddenly, like bankruptcy. After Ron Mason retired he hired his buddy Rick Comley from Northern Michigan; he turned the Spartans into Northern Michigan. Comley retired and Michigan State hired a program alum whose most recent coaching experience was something along the lines of girl's high school hockey 20 years ago. I forget what it was exactly and, following Mark Hollis's lead, decline to look something like that up.
This has gone about as well as you might expect. MSU has made the tournament once since 2008, that from a 19-16-4 season in Tom Anastos's first year that saw a quick first round exit. Anastos's brand of hockey—Ron Mason, except defensive—has imploded into itself, leaving MSU one of the very worst teams in the country. At the moment they are 54th of 60 D-I teams in RPI. They've been headed in that direction for a decade.
And Michigan keeps losing to them.
Since Michigan's own slide began, time and again they have encountered the Spartans in the second half of a season spent on the bubble and dropped games to crappy teams that came back to haunt them. The collection of problems that killed Michigan's tourney streak is large and frustrating, but the second-most infuriating trademark of the drought squads has been their ability to get your hopes up just before a NO WHAT ARE YOU DOING loss to Michigan State.
Oh, hell, here you go:
- 2015: Michigan goes 3-2, losing a pair of 2-1 games in which a dude with 8 goals all year scores the GWG early in the third. The crippling final loss sees Michigan outshoot MSU 38-19.
- 2014: Michigan eats a humiliating 3-0 loss in the GLI, then blows a 3-1 lead to lose 4-3 on the penultimate weekend of the final season. They miss a bid by one game when they lose to PSU in the opener of the Big Ten Tourney.
- 2013: A night after whipping the Spartans 5-1, Michigan loses 7-2. They do win the subsequent three games in the series. /waves tiny "punt" flag
It is very painful to lose to Michigan State because when they do score they spend the rest of the game stacked up like cordwood in the crease. Watching these things happen while envisioning big red down arrows next to Michigan's pairwise ranking has been an unpleasant experience, to say the least.
So here's to that not happening, even a little bit, last weekend.
I've spent most of this year disengaged, as you do when you aren't expecting much. I have been waiting for a sign that I should allow my emotions to get involved with this hockey team, and this weekend might have been it.
It was another rote walkover of a bad team, but let us not turn up our nose at rote walkovers of bad teams. There have been plenty non-walkovers of bad teams in the recent past. There turns out to be something to the art of not losing to teams you should not lose to.
I admit I was worried early on Saturday. @YostBuilt kept tweeting "don't lose 2-1" and I was like "please stop tweeting that" in my head. MSU came out with save-our-season energy; Michigan got one shot in the first ten minutes. MSU scored.
The script goes one of two directions then. It goes either to another hat-eating, silent-cursing loss that looms over your season, or Michigan limbers up the machine guns and makes Jake Hildebrand look like he's singlehandedly fighting World War I again. 18 of the 19 players chose Door Murder Hildebrand, and Michigan has no arrow next to its RPI at all.
That's all you can ask for when you play a team as bad as Michigan State. On to the next opportunity to not blow it.
Player nineteen. If you follow me on twitter it will not be a surprise to you that I thought Michael Downing had a really bad day. Downing gave up two breakaways in the first 21 minutes, one on a bad change, the second when he made a very inadvisable D-to-D pass, managed to recover from that due to MSU incompetence, and then got stripped of the puck at mid-ice anyway. Later he took two penalties, both of which I thought were legitimate; MSU scored on a 5-on-3 resulting from one to bring the game sort of close.
In between he did more of those Downing things where he decides to go nail a player coming out of the zone. A couple of these worked but he gave up at least one odd-man rush as a result. I will never understand why he chooses to do that or why he hasn't been screamed at until he stops doing it—the upsides there are so low and the downsides so high.
Downing is a bad decision machine and I find it inexplicable he hasn't been benched for a wake-up call. That goes double because Michigan skates seven defensemen most nights and there wasn't a detectable dropoff in play during Downing's three-game suspension.
No line shuffles please. Red loves to throw his lines in a blender from time to time just to see what happens. He usually lets it ride when things are going well, and so we've had a long period where the forwards are relatively settled:
Where X is whoever they're double-shifting with the fourth line. I'd like to see Michigan stick with this going forward; Motte and Compher have always seemed to play best together, Connor really benefits from their workrate, and the third line is playing really well together. I'm kind of meh about the second line but with the other two rolling and Dancs and Shuart bringing speed and size to the grinding corps it works.
Penalty for hitting too hard. While I though the penalty that put Michigan down 5-on-3 was a legit call, the charging penalty that preceded it was… well… on the one hand, as soon as I saw it I expected a call. But I also thought it was not a penalty.
Hockey's fallen into a situation similar to the one college football finds itself in with targeting. Some penalties get called simply because something legal and impactful looks bad. CFB reviews things, which doesn't help in any way whatsoever because nobody knows what targeting is. College hockey does not.
I dunno. I know we want guys to be safe but to me the pendulum has swung too far the other direction when Kile can plow a guy in the chest and the ref 200 feet away immediately puts his hand up for no other reason than "that looked hurty."
Pairwise bits. As always, it's basically RPI these days. Michigan is 8th. This is relatively good news. Michigan's nonconference opponents have been surprisingly good in conference play, which has kept M's SOS level despite the nature of the Big Ten. They don't have much opportunity to move up into truly secure territory unless they just don't lose the rest of the way; it's more about holding serve and generating a buffer.
This weekend against MSU did little other than help Michigan tread water; anything but a sweep would have been a hit. So, despite being a two-seed this instant, a bad weekend or two puts them right back on the bubble. It will be precarious going forward. So far so good. They are scoring an awful lot.
Michigan isn't quite at the halfway point of the regular season—that'll come after the GLI. But this is traditionally a point where we stop and take stock. So let's do that.
Despite a 9-3-3 record that looks like it should easily translate to a tourney bid, Michigan sits squarely on the bubble. Michigan is 14th in the Pairwise, which would be just enough to get into the tournament unless there were an unusual number of autobids handed out to teams below them in the rankings. (The problem Michigan would face is that if they need an at-large any non-Penn State Big Ten team would reduce the number of at large bids by one.)
There's good news and bad news. Michigan has played 11 of their 15 games at home, which is a recipe for an underwhelming RPI since the formula was slanted to value road games. Only six of Michigan's final 19 games are at home. While that makes for a pretty miserable season ticket experience, when it comes to RPI it's better to play on the road. So they've got that going for them.
What they do not have going for them is the schedule. Michigan's strength of schedule is currently 27th. It is probably going to get worse. Michigan has 8 or 9 games on the docket against Michigan State and Ohio State, currently 48th and 55th (out of 60) in RPI. Four more games are against Wisconsin, Ferris, and Northern, currently in a block from 34th to 36th. Only Penn State (9th) and Minnesota (20th) offer any counterweight. Tech (23rd) is preferable to MSU in the GLI.
The upshot: if Michigan continues winning at the rate they are winning they're probably going to be smack dab on the bubble late in the season. A 22-7-5 Michigan team is probably going into the Big Ten tournament safe because of the home/road split in the second half, but anything less than that and it's collar-pulling time. Incredibly.
You probably don't want to hear about how disastrous this schedule is again, but, like… yeah. Root for Penn State and Minnesota the rest of the year—RPI gives "quality win" bonuses for teams ranked in the top 20.
Suspensions handed out
So I tweeted that the Downing hit that got him booted from the Saturday game against Minnesota was reputation call. I did not have the benefit of replay, and I was wrong:
Here's the Downing hit on Connor Reilly, he was given the major pic.twitter.com/xwIQJuD3Lr
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) December 13, 2015
That would have been fine ten years ago, but not today. It was stupid to even attempt, as the upside there is limited. Michigan had dominated Minnesota for the entire second period and had just scored to draw within one. Downing's major not only gave Minnesota a five minute power play, it gave the Gophers an opportunity to catch their breath and recover.
Porikos's hit was the kind of blindside hit hockey started getting rid of after a bunch of skill guys got decleated (deskated?):
Niko Porikos hit on Jack Ramsey pic.twitter.com/llbxj4EmHG
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) December 13, 2015
I thought that was five and a game live and it almost certainly would have been if Michigan hadn't killed a major penalty about ten minutes of game time earlier.
As a result, Downing will miss the GLI and Porikos will miss the opener. Porikos is easily replaceable; with Michigan also down Zach Werenski on the blue line, Michigan will be a bit thin on the blue line. On the other hand, Downing's predilection for hits like the above and other assorted mental errors means his loss won't be keenly felt. Michigan does have Sam Piazza and Kevin Lohan to step into the holes left.
Michigan is hockey Indiana. They lead the country in scoring offense at 4.5(!) goals a game, and they're 36th in scoring defense. They get away with it more than Indiana does because their schedule is soft and hockey isn't a game like football where you get to take turns with the ball.
Michigan generally dominates attack time, shots… and odd-man-rushes allowed. Nagelvoort got chased by Wisconsin and I didn't think he did anything particularly wrong on any of the eight(!) goals he allowed. Chad Catt saw his first real time and was quickly dunked on by a pass across the slot. Michigan's given up multiple odd-man-rush goals in something like 5 or 6 games this year.
This is a high-variance way to live and leads to things like a loss to Minnesota one night after going for 2 on their touchdown in an 8-3 win, or having to come back from multiple-goal deficits against a bad Wisconsin team on both nights. It's kind of fun, but the specter of the multi-year tourney drought and the fact that every point dropped is another step towards extending it rather sours the mood at times.
A dull but equally good team would be more likely to make the tournament against this schedule since it would just play manball to a bunch of 3-1 wins. The flaming chaos wagon that is the 2015-16 Michigan Wolverines is liable to drop points in a series they end up with a +4 total goals margin.
Really though they should be less rickety
Literally every regular defenseman save Cutler Martin has been drafted. Michigan has a wealth of talent on the blue line that probably 58 NCAA teams would kill for. The one issue is youth—no seniors, three guys who are freshman-aged even if Werenski is a sophomore—but I mean cumong man.
The breakdowns are so widespread that you can't point the finger at any one guy who needs to improve. All of them have made glaring errors at some point this year, including Werenski. He is taking Paul Coffey comparisons to their logical extreme. Downing I kind of expect to do the Downing things—we have nicknamed a shot from the blue line that is blocked by the guy standing directly in front of the shooter a "Downing". I was hoping one or two of the other guys would emerge into Jarrod Wilson types who are boring and you forget about entirely until you look at their +/-. No such luck yet.
That scoring tho
Kyle Connor has been the kind of instant impact rookie that Dylan Larkin was, and he doesn't have quite the amount of help that Larkin did last year. Larkin played with Zach Hyman, who spent much of the year playing at a Hobey level. Connor was until recently matched up with Nieves and Selman, both decent scoring line players. Neither is anywhere near Hyman's level a year ago.
I like the recent move to put Connor with Motte and Compher. Motte and Compher have always played their best when paired together, and you might as well load up that first line as much as possible. Compher isn't scoring a ton but he has a whopping 15 assists this year because he drives play. Not like Hyman—he's not walking off the boards—but he is very good at getting and maintaining effective possession in the offensive zone. The goals will come.
Meanwhile Michigan's next six forwards are also producing. The Warren-Marody-Calderone line has been highly effective. Selman, Kile, and Nieves have all had their moments as well. Having three solid scoring lines despite the departures of Copp and Larkin is a very nice thing to have, especially given the above rickety business.
Michigan picks up a commit from this gentleman:
Proud to announce my commitment to the University of Michigan! Thank you to friends, family and coaches for the help along the way! #GoBlue
— Jack LaFontaine (@jack_lafontaine) December 15, 2015
LaFontaine will come in next year to compete with Catt and Nagelvoort after Racine graduates. He's got a .927 in the NAHL, and as I always mention when NAHL goalies get brought up: goalies come from weird places.
On the Age 20 proposal
College Hockey News collects some additional head coach reactions. I thought this was pretty interesting from the UConn HC:
They say it's a matter of have and have nots and it's only the big schools doing it, and it's not just big schools. If you go on a recruitng web site, some teams have 22 players committed. One team has a player committed for 2020. You have kids committing as (high school) freshmen and the kid doesn't pan out, and they put him off, and now he doesn't wind up going (to that college). So you have this kid because of the silly gentleman's agreement that I'm not in support of for the same reason. I hope (the new proposal) is going to stop of the stockpiling in recruiting.
"How are (the smaller schools) going to get hurt? (Schools that have '95s committed), they'll be 21 years old next year, and every single one of them has been committed for over a year. So they could've taken them now. One of them committed in 2012.
21 year olds entering college hockey have been committed long enough that they certainly could have entered earlier. None of these guys is suddenly on the radar after being passed over several times; schools deliberately delay them. I'm fine with reducing the ability to do that.
The way the Big Ten approached this is far from ideal since the people making the decision will have little or nothing to do with hockey. But it's clear that there is a critical mass of small school head coaches that will stand in the way of anything that hurts their own provincial interests. There is no way to ever get this passed through the regular means. And since the regular means have given us the worst postseason in sports, I have little sympathy for Walt Kyle and friends when someone flips them the bird.
Friday, October 23, 2015
Union 5, Michigan 5- OT
Union 1 UM 0 02:04 EV Dufour unassisted
Boo Nieves has the puck along the boards and carries to the blue line. As he turns to his right he’s bumped and starts to lose his balance.
Just as Nieves regains his balance the defender who was in the middle of the screenshot above steps up and strips the puck. This is a perfectly timed steal to the point that I don’t think there’s anything Nieves can do to prevent it.
Union’s Mark Dufour barrels through the neutral zone, but there are two Michigan defenders who are able to close and semi-impede his progress. Still, the screenshot below is one of the first moments where it becomes obvious that Union is a step ahead and going to be able to get a shot off; that shot, though, is going to come from Dufour as there isn’t anyone else remotely close.
Racine stays at the top of the crease too long. As Dufour cuts he’s given access to too much of the nearside net because Racine doesn’t slide and drop soon enough. Dufour is able to backhand one in to open the scoring.
[After THE JUMP: BELLYFLOP GOAL]
This year's team will be deep and somewhat old and oh look Walton and Levert are back so that's not bad. Also: Ricky Doyle as basketball Desmond Morgan.
ACE'S HOCKEY PODCAST
Brief segment in which I say things about the hockey team while Ace looks on grimly.
"Across 110th Street"
"Rebellion (Lies)," Arcade Fire
"Very Much Money (Ice Cream Dream)," Open Mike Eagle
THE USUAL LINKS
In Michigan sports that weren't that, Michigan kicked off its hockey season with a shaky sweep of Mercyhurst. The Lakers were .500 in Atlantic Hockey last year and lost five of their top six scorers to graduation. They looked like they were in for a rough year; Michigan dominated attack time and shots. They did not so much dominate on the scoreboard, with one-goal wins Friday and Saturday. (Michigan got an empty-netter Friday.)
Hockey takes in addition to Adam's Goal By Goal:
- Not seeing much difference in the team this year. A lot of individual talent, a lot of breakdowns. Michigan gave up a ton of odd-man rush goals and turned the puck over at or near the blueline far too much. Actual zone entry plays were rare; instead Michigan just tried to gain the zone with individual skill. They'll win their share of games, but I didn't see much that would indicate a turnaround from the last few frustrating years.
- Example of the above. On Sunday Alex Kile was on a 3-on-2 on which he had two guys open and trailing; he chose to try to beat a defenseman around the corner and blasted the goalie for an interference penalty.
- Werenski is up and down and frustrating. He stands out as a super talented even with a bunch of other NHL draft picks on the team. I expect his wrister to pick out a corner every time he gets an opportunity with it. But he was the D caught up ice on Mercyhurst's 2-on-1 goal Sunday and there were several other questionable defensive plays besides. He was iffy on D last year and should by rights be a freshman right now; I don't think that's a reason for long term concern but I was hoping he'd show a little better.
- Nieves is still Nieves. Perimeter player. Not expecting a breakout year. He's centering the "top line" mostly for morale reasons, I think—Compher's line is the actual top line.
- I don't have a feel for Connor yet. Sometimes takes me a while to figure out what I think of a player. Connor is currently in that boat.
- The third line is pretty dang good. It was Calderone, Marody, and Warren. All of them are high effort, physical guys. Calderone had some trouble receiving passes, but other than that those guys dominated their opposite number. Michigan is going to get production out of them against opponents' bottom six.
- Depth: questionable. Michigan skated seven defensemen on Sunday and elected to double-shift centers on the fourth line. I'm fine with this—one of my complaints over the last few years is that Michigan didn't seem to play its stars enough—but if there are injuries Michigan could be really thin at F.
This will be another season flirting with the tourney cutoff. Michigan's awful schedule hurts them significantly here. The Big Ten appears to be a tire fire again. These days RPI overcorrects for home games and Michigan loaded their schedule with them. And their nonconference schedule is mostly crap. I wouldn't be surprised if Michigan is the non-tourney team with the best record in April.
More Big Ten tire fire details. Alarmingly for the league and Michigan's schedule strength, Minnesota is 0-3 and has scored just one goal. Everyone expected the Gophers to take a step back after graduating huge chunks of their team; that much of a retreat is going to be yet another anchor for a league that is already carrying several around.
Meanwhile Wisconsin is coming off a BU/BC weekend in which they were outscored 10-1, OSU has been swept by Miami and BGSU, and Michigan State was just swept by Denver (total goals 7-2). Big Ten teams aren't just losing, they're getting crushed.
Penn State(!) is the only team with anything approximating an encouraging start after a competitive split with Notre Dame. Everything else points to a repeat of last year minus a good Minnesota team. Maybe the Big Ten could spend some of their filthy lucre on hiring non-incompetent hockey coaches next year? Could we try that maybe? MSU and Wisconsin allowing Tom Anastos and Mike Eaves to return is bad for everybody.
Yost things. They have walked back a lot of the in-game commercials this year, so that's nice. IIRC the only thing still around is Find The Object Under The Corporate Logo. That's down from just under a dozen per game last year.
The folks in charge are still a bit off, though. Hockey Special K has limited opportunities to do his thing because of the nature of hockey but he's still jamming in a goal horn—completely unnecessary w/ the bad—and then playing pump-up music before the puck drop. Why Special K insists on playing 5 seconds of music before every kickoff/puck drop is always going to be a mystery.
Also the concession prices remain completely out of whack. When it's more expensive than Joe Louis I'm going to avoid buying things out of principle. I can't imagine the tiny incremental profit increase is worth the psychic damage to hockey fans who are already pretty beat up. I almost dropped my tickets this year because I could probably TiqIq the entire schedule for half of what my seats cost. Like, I decided not to and then two weeks after the deadline I relented.
Yost is not priced at all sensibly, especially when it comes to students. They're down to two sections and an overflow in the endzone, which is super depressing. I know we want the hockey program to break even but surely the atmosphere in the building is more important than X thousand dollars.
Friday, October 16, 2015
Michigan 6, Mercyhurst 4
UM 1 Mercyhurst 0 EV 04:45 Nieves (1) from Connor (1) & Martin (1)
Nick Boka has the puck at the blueline and passes to Cutler Martin after reading his defender, who’s close enough to warrant not shooting. It’s a smart pass; Martin’s defender is moving across and giving him a big cushion. He takes advantage of that, gathering the puck and taking time (maybe even too much time) before firing.
The puck sails into traffic, and if we’re to believe the official score sheet it hits Kyle Connor at some point before reaching the goaltender. The goalie stops it but can’t gather, allowing a plush rebound to his left. The two netfront defenders have pinched in, and you can see from the screen shot that the distance between the nearest defender and Boo Nieves is not great for Mercyhurst.
The goaltender has to make a lateral push that’s basically impossible to do in time to cover; there’s no way he’s locking down the post when he has to go from the middle of the crease to the side. All Nieves has to do is flip a backhander over the goalies shoulder, which isn’t the easiest thing from that sharp an angle. Still, he’s got the necessary space to do so and executes.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest]