3/25/2016 – Michigan 3, Notre Dame 2 (OT) – 25-7-5
3/26/2016 – Michigan 2, North Dakota 5 – 25-8-5, season over
When things went badly for Michigan this year, they tended to go bad in bunches. An inability to get a clean zone exit against certain hyperactive teams led to periods where Michigan got bombarded in its own end. Until the tournament these periods weren't even against good teams, since there weren't any on the schedule.
Half the time Michigan would fight back out of these holes, sometimes wielding puck-loaded tommy guns. (Literally: before the North Dakota game Michigan was 4-4-4 going into the third period down.) While the Notre Dame game wasn't quite as explosive as various Big Ten comebacks, they did rebound from a horrendous second period on Friday to get a grip on the game, one they would eventually use to win the game on a gorgeous behind-the-back pass from JT Compher.
That was something. Through two periods that game felt like nothing so much as the last time Notre Dame and Michigan played. That CCHA championship game was Michigan's last ditch attempt to salvage their tourney streak. Michigan grabbed an early lead in the kind of game that feels over as soon as the opposition ties it; Notre Dame tied it. There was a flicker there of something different. If only someone else, something else loomed.
There was no similar respite against North Dakota, and that's the problem.
Michigan and North Dakota are, or at least were, mirror images of each other. They recruit speed and skill directly after high school. They're piled high with NHL draft picks. They win a ton of games and get shot down in the tournament by bloody, goofy fate. But these last two meetings, spread out as they are over five years, demonstrate that the programs have diverged.
The first was the Tiny Jesus game. Michigan got outshot 2 to 1, gave up a blizzard of grade A scoring chances, and saw Shawn Hunwick stone every last one of them. I thought about that game on Saturday; North Dakota fans thought about that game on Saturday. Neither of us were happy to think about that game. Never has a team absolutely crushing their opponent without having anything to show for it on the scoreboard induced so much despair in their own fans as I imagine North Dakota did during that first period. At one point shots were 15-3, and all underthings were in danger of soiling.
That state of affairs took an irrationally long time to resolve itself, because single elimination playoff hockey is barely weighted plinko. You know this; you saw Michigan bomb Air Force's goalie over and over to no effect. The "hot goalie" thing has always seemed to be a bad way to think about the fact that hockey is pretty random.
Anyway, this is what I meant when I said the plinko was in our favor this year: Michigan wasn't in North Dakota's class except on the scoreboard. By the end of the game Michigan had once again been outshot 2 to 1. They gave up nearly 50 shots.
In the years bookended by these games, North Dakota has been slashed down in the Frozen Four twice and at this stage twice. Michigan saw entire four-year careers come and go without a tourney bid. Last year's team had the NHL rookie of the year, another guy who played 70 games right out of college, and Hobey finalist Zach Hyman and couldn't make the tourney. A team with Jacob Trouba on it missed the tourney. This team features a top line of future NHLers, one of whom was so rampant he will win the Hobey himself, and Racine's performance is the only thing disguising the fact they got run off the ice by North Dakota.
The talent is there; has always been there. The team is not on an elite level anymore.
I guess trying hard and going down fighting to a vastly superior team is preferable to some of the alternatives we saw over the past few years. That assertion was featured in some pushback on Twitter after I said "it's over" for Red, as if Michigan—Michigan!—was some try-hard program that's just happy to be here. I guess some people are just happy to be here, these days.
I was one of them for most of the year because I'd resigned myself to the fact that Michigan hockey isn't what it once was. This is indisputably true. Michigan once was a team with a 22-year tourney streak. Michigan used to go out like North Dakota, shaking their fists after dominating attack time and possession. That hasn't happened for a long time, and it's hard to envision a Red team that will do that in the future.
So, no, Michigan Daily, Red should not return next year. This season is not a return to form. It is an extension of same against a terrible schedule with a transcendent one-and-done. If there wasn't a ready-made candidate waiting in the wings there might be a case. But there is, and it's time for Mel Pearson to get the job he's waited 30 years for. Only Red can make that call; here's hoping he does.
A thought for Steve Racine. For Racine to finish this season with a save percentage of .914 is a danged miracle. Even so he has to endure goofs like Dave Starman deriding him as Michigan's weak point despite the fact that there can't be another goalie on a decent team in the country who endured the same shot quality he did. He made some big mistakes at times—two goals came from outside the blueline this year—but he is clearly Michigan's best goalie since Shawn Hunwick.
The statistics will not reflect this assertion. The scatter charts will.
The Big Ten excuse doesn't fly. Have seen a number of assertions that Michigan was ill-prepared to play North Dakota because they are good and the Big Ten is not. Such assertions fail to deal with the fact that Michigan got run over by Ohio State just three weeks ago, that Michigan didn't even win the not good league, that Michigan had control over 14 nonconference games and came up with BU and nobody else within spitting distance of an at-large bid.
Michigan's defense was a travesty most of the year; there was plenty of opportunity to fix it, but it didn't get fixed, just like it didn't get fixed any of the last four years.
Looking towards next year. Mike Spath says that Werenski, Downing, and Connor are almost certainly out the door and that Motte and Compher will get pushed by NHL teams to sign.
Those two guys will have to decide between getting a jump on their entry level contracts or returning and having the flexibility Zach Hyman did after his senior year. Hyman forced a trade to the Leafs and is now in the NHL permanently since Mike Babcock loves him. I've also heard that Compher is in Ross and has a very high profile degree he can complete next year, which is motivation to return.
If Michigan gets Motte and Compher back their lines might look something like this:
Pastujov, Sanchez, and Lockwood should be mid-round picks in the upcoming draft.
- De Jong-C. Martin
- L. Martin-Luce
Luce will be a mid-round pick.
That's not bad but it lacks an out-and-out star on defense unless Luke Martin, who's eligible for the 2017 draft, is the top-15-pick various mock draft sites are projecting him as.
If Compher and Motte depart things start getting grim. The only forwards not listed above are Evan Allen, Niko Porikos, and incoming PWO Lukas Samuelsson.
Breakout failures. It was uncanny how North Dakota destroyed Michigan by attacking the second pass. Most of the time a D's pass up to a forward saw that F under immediate pressure, whereupon he either threw it up the ice blindly or turned it over right there. It reminded me of watching the USMNT play Germany in the most recent world cup. North Dakota's forecheck is a high press that destroyed Michigan's offensive rhythm for most of the game. Their goals were more or less both on the power play; at 5x5 they did not score.
5x5: all of it. Michigan had one full power play in 130 minutes of hockey and drew one other penalty. This was a disaster for the nation's top power play. It resulted from a combination of excellent discipline from opponents, Michigan's inability to possess the puck, and refs lacking the courage to blow the whistle.
This was particularly acute in the Saturday game. An obvious interference call as Motte attempted to dump and chase in the first five minutes of the North Dakota game went unpunished, and after that it was free-for-all for both teams. By the third period Michigan defensemen could get their stick slashed out of their hands repeatedly with no reaction from the referee.
North Dakota was the superior team and deserved to win the game, but I'm frustrated that the game tilted even further to them because the refs decided that playoff hockey has different rules than regular hockey.
A fitting end. Michael Downing's slashing penalty with two and half minutes left was the final nail in the coffin, and a fitting way for him to go out. It was a two-handed chop down on a guy's arm in a situation where you'd rather just let the guy take his shot. I can't remember a more frustrating player other than maybe the freshman version of Jack Johnson, and Johnson was incredible as a sophomore.
Meanwhile Downing never shook the violence and bad decisions that plagued his game at Michigan. Notre Dame's opening goal on Friday was an odd-man rush he ceded with an awful decision. He then compounded it by falling down as the play entered the defensive zone.
I don't think Michigan will miss a beat without him. They went 3-0 during his various suspensions this year.
3/18/16 – Michigan 7, Penn State 2 – 23-7-5, 12-5-3 Big Ten
3/19/16 – Michigan 5, Minnesota 3 – 24-7-5, 12-5-3 Big Ten, Big Ten Tourney champions
It takes me a while to grasp what a hockey player is like. Part of that is just the game: most of the time even the best players are on the bench, and then there are ten guys trying to control a puck that bounces around. It takes time for a player new to college to establish what he's going to be, and then further time for me to figure it out. Like, I thought Dylan Larkin was a good player. I couldn't describe his game like I could describe Zach Hyman's. Hyman, a senior, was excellent in the corners and capable of bursting from the boards to the net-front with little warning. Once there he had a deft touch at the net front. Larkin… scored a lot.
Like Larkin the year before, Kyle Connor has put up points in buckets without having a distinct on-ice personality for much of this year. That has gradually changed as the season progressed and Connor kept scoring on one-timers from absurd angles, kept dropping saucer passes directly on his teammates' sticks. A debate about which Michigan player should be their primary Hobey candidate went from wide open to probably Connor.
In the aftermath of a Big Ten Tournament in which Connor scored a natural hat trick in nine minutes and left Eric Schierhorn in a heap of self-loathing with this…
…both the Hobey and personality issues have been resolved. Connor for Hobey, because he is an all-around offensive dynamo.
He is fast. Everything is fast. His skating is fast. His shot gets out fast and travels fast. He is precise. Everything is precise. His ability to hit the water bottle from one knee on a one timer is something I've never seen from a Michigan player, even Hilbert or Tambellini. Seemingly every game now sees a saucer pass that elevates itself a good foot off the ice and then lands perfectly flat on a teammate's stick.
On Michigan's rampant power play he calmly checked options high and across before sliding the puck to Motte at the side of the goal. The pass was not remarkable in itself, but the process by which Connor moved the defense around with his posture and the fact that at any moment he might do something Kyle-Connor-esque opened up an opportunity. This was the weekend when Connor went from a guy on an awesome line to the guy on the awesome line, and that's no slight to Motte or Compher. I mean, go back to that Vine and check the pass that got Connor the opportunity and who it's from. JT Compher is awesome. He's not the guy.
And so Michigan grabs a banner. As banners go it's not exactly a monumental achievement—it's on par with the GLI in games played. But it goes up in the Yost rafters anyway. More importantly, Michigan got another week further away from the alarming Ohio State meltdown. I'll take two even-strength goals allowed on a weekend. Two goals is more or less a shutout for this team.
Even when Minnesota scored three consecutive goals to take the lead on Saturday those felt like things that will happen in hockey games, and not an endless parade of unchecked opponents in the slot. Sorting out the signal from the noise in hockey requires a lot of feelingsball, and my feeling is that the team has responded to the OSU debacle with four of their most defensively responsible games of the season.
Extending that streak of games that don't make fans want to pull their hair out was more important than the actual trophy; mission accomplished. Having Kyle Connor definitively stamp his name on this season, nationwide, is a bonus.
Michigan enters the most bowel-rending postseason known to man firing on at least most of their many, many cylinders. It could all blow up in a second, because hockey. It could all blow up because this hockey team has many guns, some of which point at their own feet. It could blow up because the universe hates you. There are many ways in which doom comes in single-elimination playoff hockey. But if you squint and forget about two weeks ago…
On the opposition. I haven't seen any Notre Dame hockey this year but at a glance they look like a typical Jeff Jackson team: fast, disciplined, slightly D-oriented. They score just over 3 goals a game (good for 15th)* and give up just over two (14th). They are reasonably good at everything and not great at any one thing. They're good-ish on the PP and good-ish on the PK. They spread their scoring out. Nobody's got more than 13 goals but six guys are in double digits.
As far as common opponents go, ND split with Penn State, Minnesota, and BU. They're just 19-10-7 but KRACH ranks their schedule difficulty 10th; Michigan languishes in 32nd. Both KRACH and RPI have this a game between #7 and #12, so Michigan got a slight break there—emphasis, however, is on slight. ND is a whisker behind Yale and Harvard.
Should be an exciting game. ND has a lot of draft picks and gets in your face on the forecheck.
*[Yes, the #15 O in the country is almost two goals a game worse than Michigan.]
Michigan's Michael Downing ejected after a crosscheck to the head of Penn State captain David Glen pic.twitter.com/iIg7Tfueb5
— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) March 18, 2016
Welp. Downing picked up a game misconduct for a crosscheck to the head delivered to a player who was on the opposite side of the ice from the puck and not even looking at him. That was his third of the season and brought with it a mandatory suspension from the title game; given his track record I wouldn't have been surprised to see another game added on for an incident that was pure violence without even the whisper of a legit hockey play.
At least that incident seems like a relapse by now. Downing got chippy late in those Ohio State games but so did a lot of Michigan players; when faced with games that were not inexplicable three or four goal deficits Downing's been even keel for the last couple months.
In his absence… Sam Piazza stepped in and Michigan didn't skip a beat. They even inserted Piazza next to De Jong on the nominal top pairing, which speaks both to Michigan's confidence in their D one through six and their confidence in Piazza—who also absorbed Downing's PP minutes—himself. And he's repaid that confidence, with a 1-5-6 line, a +7 rating, and zero penalties in 16 games. That is an incredible luxury to have as your seventh defenseman.
Getting more active. Both De Jong and Boka have been much more noticeable presences near the opposition's goal over the past few weeks. Michigan is doing a lot more rotation between forwards and D, which goes a long way towards making your cycle unpredictable enough to generate 5x5 chances. I still remember a vintage Minnesota team from a while back—the one on which Jordan Leopold, a defenseman, won the Hobey—that was terrifying specifically because they were the best at using their defensemen to generate 5x5 scoring chances. Michigan is not that, but I think they'll be in good shape next year as those two guys get older.
Good lord, the power play. Yes, I expect to score on every power play now. Michigan was 6/9 this weekend. (Nice.) They had excellent chances on two of the three they did not manage to convert; it is a machine unlike any I've seen at M. They lead the country, converting at 32%(!), and are 17/29(!!!) over their last six games.
Mandatory attendance rant. There was nobody at this tournament even when Minnesota was there. It's embarrassing, and it's unnecessary. Michigan and Penn State averaged 97% of capacity this year and played in front of a few hundred people. A best two out of three series at Yost ends up with 40-60 times the attendance of this neutral-site farce.
There is no fixing this. Nobody but Minnesota fans and the odd Wisconsin fan will show in St. Paul. Nobody but Michigan fans will show in Detroit. The geographic realities of the Big Ten demand a return to home sites if anyone is ever going to show.
College hockey refuses to acknowledge this. Just yesterday the WCHA commissioner unveiled the "Big Idea". Prepare to be underwhelmed:
While the logistics, of which there would be many, still need to be worked out, the basic idea is to host all three conference tournaments for the WCHA, Big Ten, and NCHC in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area on the same weekend, and stagger the start times as much as possible to allow fans the opportunity to see as many games as possible. While not mentioned in the article, one rumor suggested all three conference tournament finals then being played on the final day of the season at the XCel Energy Center. The idea is to turn the weekend into a festival of college hockey for the city.
That's great for St. Paul, I guess. It's terrible for everyone in the Big Ten other than Minnesota and should be a non-starter. The idea that people who aren't interested in going to their own conference tournament will be convinced because teams they don't play against are also having a tournament is fanciful, and that permanently shuts out every Big Ten fanbase other than the Gophers. It's an idiotic idea. So of course:
The Big Ten seems the most interested at the moment, with B1G deputy commissioner and most hated man in college hockey Brad Traviolia admitting that is one of many potential options they will discuss and consider for the future, saying "We recognize that the attendance hasn’t been what we had hoped" under the current set-up.
College hockey is not big enough for neutral site playoffs other than the Frozen Four, period. I will never understand why they keep trying.
3/11/2016 – Michigan 7, Penn State 1 – 21-7-5, 11-5-3 Big Ten
3/12/2016 – Michigan 6, Penn State 1 – 22-7-5, 12-5-3 Big Ten
this will not go well for you [Bill Rapai]
This used to happen with some frequency: a not-bad team would walk into Yost Ice Arena and get hamblasted. By the second period of Saturday's game they'd have given up on everything except petty revenge, things would get increasingly sloppy, and at some point a combination of angry penalties would yield a 4-on-3 power play. We waited for the 4-on-3 every weekend, and got it most of the time.
Goalies were chased. Michigan replaced theirs voluntarily. The students chanted "goalie goalie sieve sieve sieve" at the various netminders they'd seen. People came perilously close to running out of fingers for the goal chant. Yost roiled; students right behind the opposition bench tried to get players to quit hockey on the spot.
I missed the Brendan Morrison-led heart of this era, when some local pizza marketer spent Michigan hockey games with his head in his hands moaning "why no why." Ten goals seems like a safely absurd number to offer free pizza after, and then this kid wanders out of British Columbia with the puck on a string and you go from business to charity overnight. I did catch the tail end. Even a slightly less rampant Michigan was electric. The Comrie-Cammalleri team was a ridiculous goal factory, and the subsequent Hensick/Porter or Hensick/Hilbert years didn't come up too far short of that ambitious mark.
Yost then was a revelation for someone raised on genteel Michigan Stadium, black as the ancient wood that held the stands up. People would scream things, terrible things. Yost got in people's heads. It was not uncommon for opposing players to squirt water in the vague direction of their most persistent hecklers. Lake State's coach tossed expletives back into the crowd like he was playing curse word tennis. Incidents where hockey parents lost their cool and tried to fight the entire section became so frequent they had to move the visiting team's ticket block across the ice.
The team was not responsible for the edge of danger that made Yost infamous, but they did inspire the utter lack of mercy with the product on the ice. I mean, I didn't get into Michigan hockey to the point where I started shaking uncontrollably during NCAA tournament games because things were reasonable and fair. I got into Michigan hockey because I wanted to see someone set on fire, and then taunted about how stupid and flammable they are.
Michigan set Penn State on fire this weekend. PSU limped in down multiple skaters due to injury, but they are a good team, a well coached team, and Guy Gadowsky has assembled a bunch of guys who can fly. Michigan struggled with their speed early, especially on two early power plays where PSU's aggression hardly let them get set up.
That's the way to play Michigan if you can hack it. They're not great at breaking out of their own zone and can get disrupted by a fierce forecheck. Penn State just about managed it for a period and then faded a hair in the second, surviving for the most part despite a flurry of chances. Michigan was up 2-1 and I was concerned because the lead probably should have been larger. Michigan tends to give up a lot of goals, you know.
Not on Friday. The third period featured one of those goal avalanches where Michigan turns a competitive game into a laugher over the course of three minutes. Kyle Connor snapped in another one-timer from his knees or his back or whatever. Like all Kyle Connor one-timers it was uncannily accurate and virtually unstoppable. That ended the competitive portion of the weekend; Saturday was about whether or not Michigan could crack a shot per minute. The 4-on-3 power play happened, of course, and there was even a brief period of 3-on-3. I can't remember the last time I saw that.
So you're looking at this team and Yost is alive, mean and angry, for the first time in a long time, and—oh right last weekend Michigan got swept by Ohio State thanks to an astounding 13 goals allowed, many of them resulting from Michigan turning the flamethrower on itself.
I hadn't been actually mad about a home game since I'd dialed it back after the Mac Bennett injury against BGSU. I'm into this team enough now to leave a game with Yosemite Sam smoke issuing from my ears if, say, they blow a 2-0 lead by allowing six straight goals of an increasingly clownshoes variety. Which they did.
So I don't know, man. I've been saying I don't know what to expect from this team on a nightly basis and in response they've decided to up their amplitude even further. We know they're in. We know what they look like when they're locked in. They look like the apocalypse on skates. We know what they look like when they're thinking about something other than the opponent in front of them. They look like a man playing spin-the-bazooka.
We don't know what Michigan looks like against a tourney team. The last time they played anyone likely to get an at-large was when they travelled to BU sometime in the 1860s. I fear that a disciplined ECAC team comprised largely of 24-year-olds may be a shock to the system, but equally anticipate than anyone going up against the kind of wheelin'-dealin'-saucer-passin' magnificence the CCM line comes up with will inevitably be left consoling a goaltender and possibly a pizza marketer.
It is almost time for the most terrifying thing in sports, and we are approaching it with a team that could do literally anything. If this is the last team Red Berenson ever coaches he dies like he lived: charging headlong into death or glory with flame in his eyes.
Dang, Nieves. The Boo Nieves we saw this weekend is the best-case version of Nieves. He was big, fast, agile, and deft with the puck. He drove a ton of play. That's the guy we were hoping to get when he was a second-round pick.
It's not that he's been necessarily bad; he's been a scoring-line player for the duration of his career and he has put up points. But he's never seemed to outclass his opposition. This weekend he did, maybe for the first time. Better late than never.
Where did this passing come from? Over the past couple months of the season Michigan has become an incredibly slick passing team when they are on the attack. Alex Kile had the sweetest pass of the series when he backhanded one from behind the net that fooled every Nittany Lion on the ice and resulted in a goal. It was one of many chances generated by Michigan's vision.
This hasn't happened in a long while: I got frustrated at Michigan for over-passing in certain situations. That used to be a common refrain when Michigan had an off night back in the rampant days. That it's back is, in the wider view, a great sign.
I would still prefer it if Werenski shoots when he's in the slot, though.
Downing: still sane. Haven't had much to complain about with him for a while now, even during the OSU series. I think the switch has flipped there. I haven't seen him generate an opposition odd man rush with excessive aggression much, if at all, since that MSU game he was horrendous in.
Boka: offensive upside. Michigan's been activating their D more over the past few weeks and Nick Boka has been a beneficiary. Not so much on the scoreboard but in terms of gaining and keeping the zone and handling the puck, Boka has given some indication he can help fill the shoes Werenski is likely to vacate next year.
Shuart is a luxury as a fourth liner [Bill Rapai]
Skill down the roster. Max Shuart's goal on Saturday saw him stickhandle through a couple guys and lift a backhand over the goalie; on Friday Tony Calderone scored a slick breakaway goal five-hole. Most years
Pairwise stuff. Michigan slides up just one spot to seventh. Right now they'd be bracketed with Harvard in the first round and (probably) Quinnipiac in the second, which would mean they get shipped east.
The committee does have leeway to move folks around in a seed band in an effort to bump attendance so Michigan might get swapped into Cincinnati anyway—although if I was the committee that wouldn't make much impact on me either way since attendance in Cinci is always a disaster no matter who is in that regional. If the committee really gave a crap about attendance a Cincinnati regional would not exist.
Michigan is locked into the field now, BTW. There is not a scenario amongst the three million or so possibilities remaining that drops them out. They are about 90% likely to be #7 or #8. No other Big Ten team has a chance at an at-large; Michigan Tech has a faint shot at an at-large if they lose in the WCHA title game. Michigan's playing for the banner and the banner only in St. Paul.
Big Ten Tourney stuff. Annual rant: this is the dumbest format for a sporting event that isn't the actual NCAA tourney. They will never get attendance anywhere when they have six teams so spread out for a niche sport like hockey. I do not understand why they don't just have best two of three series on home ice. More games, better for fans, more money. Anyone who doubts this must not have watched the various home-court basketball conference tourney finals, which are always played in tiny gyms that are losing their damn minds.
The holdup is that Wisconsin and Ohio State don't want to reserve their buildings for three weeks because high school state championships use them. Which is fine. If neither school wants to take hockey seriously that's their problem. (In Wisconsin's case their objection is even more absurd since there's another arena the same damn size in Madison that can take the high school events.) That shouldn't prevent the Big Ten from running a much better tournament in every way.
Oh: Michigan gets the winner of Penn State-Wisconsin after a bye. Given the results of the last two weekends that's better than facing the MSU-OSU winner. Minnesota would likely await in the final.
I don't want to get ahead of myself, but… I have heard that Compher will return for his degree, and I'm guessing Motte comes along with him. Werenski is almost certainly gone, but if they get those two guys back Michigan is waiting on Connor and just Connor. If he comes back… hoo boy. I mean, I don't think he's back. But man.
2/28/2016 – Michigan 57, Wisconsin 68 – 20-10, 10-7 Big Ten
I try to avoid putting certain thoughts on twitter during basketball games because the replies they draw tend to send me into a "someone is wrong on the internet" pit. This didn't go so well yesterday, in both directions.
I expressed frustration at Michigan's horrendous defense in the first half, when Wisconsin bricked a huge array of wide open threes. I got a couple responses about how it was better to give up wide open threes than to let Nigel Hayes eat in the paint, with one guy offering up Hayes's shot chart as evidence. Evidence of what, though?
Hayes isn't actually an efficient offensive player this year in any way except one: he gets to the line a lot. He's suffered with the extra usage heaped on him in the absence of Dekker and Kaminsky; Wisconsin has a lot of bad possessions and Hayes ends up taking a lot of 15-footers as a result. He's good at those, which is like being good at writing about Rutgers sports.
As a whole, Wisconsin is decent at threes (4th in the league) and mediocre at twos (7th). They are not a team that you should be constantly doubling until they get a launch off. This is what Michigan did in the first half; they got lucky. So I got into a fight about that despite the fact that Hayes wasn't even taking the open threes.
Later, I expressed further frustration at Michigan's defense and got an array of FIRE HIS ASS and PATHETIC replies. I have only myself to blame.
But it's true, and playing Wisconsin is designed to highlight everyone's frustration with this year's basketball team. At halftime I predicted a ten point Wisconsin win in our slack channel, and there was grunting agreement. UMHoops felt the same way:
Michigan is hanging around in Madison, but a Wisconsin run almost feels inevitable. pic.twitter.com/mQRJmD60DQ
— Dylan Burkhardt (@umhoops) February 29, 2016
It was, with Wisconsin staking itself to a seven point lead by hitting six straight shots. The threes versus twos discussion became moot as Michigan failed to defend either well. Then you look over at Wisconsin's collection of athletes. Wisconsin features a guy Mark Donnal wrecked in high school and a variety of gentlemen who seem like ringers grabbed from the Plattville YMCA. Their main post is a freshman. They are 18th in defensive efficiency.
It's pretty tough not to be sour at Beilein after watching a bunch of try-hard types with excellent organization stifle Michigan. It's pretty tough not to be sour when Vitto Brown, the guy that Donnal worked in high school, goes 4/6 from three on six uncontested looks.
I don't expect Michigan to be actually good at defense for a lot of different reasons, but there's a difference between Michigan's usual meh and this. The trend is worrying. Defensive efficiency in the Beilein era:
- 2008: 100th
- 2009: 69th
- 2010: 58th
- 2011: 37th
- 2012: 61st
- 2013: 48th
- 2014: 109th
- 2015: 107th
- 2016: 145th
This is the third straight year of a triple-digit ranking. While you may remember things as "not good" even when the larger picture was much prettier, this is a whole new era of ineptness only matched by Beilein's first team of castoffs and runaways. This year's team is in fact considerably worse despite than those guys despite having a reasonable amount of experience. For the first time in a while Michigan doesn't have a freshman playing major minutes; for the first time in a while they've crawled out of the 300s in Kenpom's experience stat. This was the first year in a while you could reasonably expect year to year improvement, and yet.
The reason that the world expected Wisconsin to pull away in the second half is because they had a guy where Michigan was when their shots went up and Michigan did not do this. There is no reason for this based on the guys on the court. That is what's scary about this team and those down the road: something appears to have left the program over the last three years. The 2014 team managed to paper over it with Nik Stauskas and his merry band; Michigan outfits that do not have the ability to finish #1 in offensive efficiency have not found a plan B.
This is in no way a plea to fire anybody. Michigan has lost an NBA first round pick to injury each of the last three years, along with their starting PG last year and backup PG this year. If a Tom Izzo player gets a hangnail it gets a special edition of SportsCenter on which Izzo weeps and quavers; Michigan has suffered the insult of injury stoically.
But there's no reason that losing Caris Levert would send the defense into a tailspin. There's no reason that Ricky Doyle should go from promising freshman to afterthought in a year. There's no reason that Michigan should find itself 11th in defense in a league featuring luminaries like Penn State, Rutgers, Northwestern, and Illinois. This is our concern, dude.
I mean like whatever. I am super not into this basketball team for the reasons detailed above, which I why I haven't written about it much. Whatever motive force was behind the back to back elite eight teams left the building with Stauskas and has not given a hint of a return.
I would not be surprised to see a coaching shakeup after the year. Beilein did it once before, and since he's clearly not going to be the guy who fixes the defense he's got to get someone in who can give it a shot.
Bright spots? Michigan had a bunch of tight curl screen action that we hadn't seen much of before that was effective; they also made a number of interior passes to their bigs in situations they had not attempted much previously. Those resulted in a few turnovers but also a number of shots at the rim that were generally effective.
I wonder how much of the problem with the offense is that there aren't many good passers on the team. MAAR and Irvin are getting better but had to come up from absolutely zero assists; Walton is so bad inside the arc that there's not much reason to overplay him. This is no longer a bright spot. Sorry.
I'm shocked. Jon Crispin does not like dabbing.
2/19/2016 – Michigan 5, Ferris State 2 – 19-4-5
There was a particular shift on which Connor, Compher, and Motte buzzed around the offensive zone for a solid minute and forced a panicked icing. I don't remember when this was, because it was most of the game. I do remember starting to clap, as one does when there is an excellent shift, and nobody else noticed sufficiently to join in. In-game expectations had shifted for the remarkable to be routine, and that felt different.
Despite having the shiny record above, Michigan has only occasionally looked like a rampant old-timey Red team. Mostly they've outscored their mistakes. Even when they're outscoring their mistakes dramatically, there's enough of a rickety feel to things to forbode. Friday night's game against Ferris State was not that. The Bulldogs scraped out a couple of goals on their occasional forays out of their defensive zone. The rest of the time they curled up in a ball and said "not in the face," whereupon Michigan put it in the face.
Ferris came out trapping, which frustrated Michigan for maybe five or six minutes. They started getting through the neutral zone, they scored a couple times, and in the second period Ferris tried to amp up the pressure only to give up a couple of two-on-ones in the first five minutes. That ability to crack a defensive team and punish them when they go up-tempo is encouraging.
Steve Racine was not under siege. By halfway through the second period he looked downright disoriented at the lack of work, and he gave up a late, soft goal to his short side largely out of boredom. There was just one odd man rush created by a defenseman's operating system suddenly rebooting—Joe Cecconi was victimized on a breakaway that didn't get converted. Other than a couple of bad turnovers, Ferris created little. Michigan overwhelmed.
Still, I'm going to wait a minute here to see if there's anything consistent about this defensive performance. Michigan's coming off a 4-4 tie against 6-15-7 Wisconsin in which Racine got bombarded; they have a series against desperate Minnesota on Olympic ice this weekend*. Their Corsi** is 53%, which is 16th nationally. Michigan's top line looks highly capable of outperforming shooting percentage expectations over the long term, but… yeah. Poke at the underlying stats, which aren't even adjusted for a meh schedule, and Michigan looks like the thing that's been in front of your eyes.
On the other hand,
Points Per Game: GP G- A- P P/GM 1 Kyle Connor (WPG) Michigan 28 24-27-51 1.82 2 JT Compher (COL) Michigan 28 11-34-45 1.61 3 Tyler Motte (CHI) Michigan 28 28-16-44 1.57 4 Max French Bentley 26 18-22-40 1.54 5 Andrew Poturalski New Hampshire 32 22-26-48 1.50
This has also been in front of our eyes. So we've got that going for us.
*[Sort of: it's a Thursday-Friday series, possibly for TV. I'll take the oddity if it's actually on the teevee.]
**[Basic Corsi is your shots attempted divided by total shots attempted. It's one of those WHIP stats that is in fact stupidly easy to calculate and intuitive but makes old sportswriters go haywire.]
Pairwise check. Michigan remains sixth after the W. Let's go back to that Jim Dahl graph, which has not been updated for weekend results but is still useful:
The worst case scenario is now out of the question, leaving Michigan two wins from 100% in and one from 90% in. Unfortunately they have little upward mobility.
Meanwhile Penn State and Minnesota are the heart of the bubble right now at #15 and #16, respectively. Both teams will be going all-out in critical series against Michigan over the next couple weeks. PSU's split with OSU this weekend hurt them; they need to take 3 of 4 remaining regular season games to (probably) enter the BTT in a spot to get an at-large. Minnesota is in deep trouble despite a superficially okay spot right now. Their graph is still mostly on point since they had a bye last weekend:
5-1 most likely puts them at 16, still. They'd have a shot if they went 2-1 in the BTT but it's going to be tough for them to get an at-large.
It's pointless to look at this yet but if the season ended today Michigan would get bracketed with BC and shipped east, with UNO their likely first-round opponent.
Cutler Martin, forward? Tony Calderone missed the game for reasons I have not seen specified, so Michigan skated seven defensemen. This is not unusual; they've done it most of the year. What was unusual was that one of the defensemen took a regular shift on the fourth line. This was Cutler Martin, who would not have been my guess for the defender most likely to move. (That would be Sam Piazza, who is deft on the puck and not huge.)
Martin looked awkward, as you might expect. He did ring the post on a backhand during Michigan's period of frustrated dominance, and the fourth line only took a minus thanks to the soft goal towards the end. Michigan seems to not think much of Evan Allen, so Martin might keep that job if Piazza continues to stay in the lineup.
Plus/minus stuff. Not the most reliable way of determining anything but advanced stats in the college game are limited. So, your defensemen:
- Joe Cecconi, +16
- Nick Boka, +15
- Michael Downing, +15
- Nolan De Jong, +14
- Cutler Martin, +10
- Zach Werenski, +7
- Sam Piazza, +6 (in 12 games)
Not much to pick from there other than Werenski lagging the field. Plus/minus doesn't take Werenski's excellent power play skills into account; it does suggest that the occasional lack of awareness and/or effort you may have observed when Werenski doesn't have the puck is indeed a real thing.
The forwards are in clear tiers based on their lines, with the CCM line all +31 or better(!), the Nieves line +6 or +7, and the third line around even. The fourth liners are performing well; Dexter Dancs is +8 and Max Shuart +4. That probably has something to do with the fact that for most of the year the other guy on that line has often been a top-liner taking a double shift, but they've managed to make that pay off.
I've thought that the all-underclass third line was in fact the second line but the +/- numbers suggest that they're giving up a lot of chances in their own zone.
Downing has toned down the crazy. A big chunk of how I judge defensemen is how often I think "no arrrgh why" because of something they've done. Downing was approaching Tristin Llewellyn levels earlier this year, but after a disastrous MSU game in which he just about singlehandedly kept the Spartans in it he's settled down considerably. He's finally stopped rushing out at forwards for big hits that end up in a penalty or a two-on-one ceded.
In the absence of the WTF moments it becomes possible to appreciate the things that made Downing a potential first round pick until scouts picked up on the characteristic mental bobbles; his size, smoothness on the puck, and skating are an attractive package. I cannot be held responsible if this immediately causes a six-penalty, four-odd-man rush game.
De Jong had a very solid night. Nolan De Jong has occasionally seemed like a guy who can be a two-way defensemen, but those flashes have been erratic and not frequently repeated. De Jong may be putting things together, though. His ability to keep the puck and get it away from forecheckers was excellent in this game.
Marody back. I was worried that once mono was invoked as an explanation for Cooper Marody's absence that he might be gone long-term. He's still behind where he would be…
“(Cooper) feels good,” Berenson said. “He wants to play and he’s had a few practices now. It’s going to take him a little while to get caught up in terms of quickness and conditioning, but that’s why you have to play.”
…but he should be full go in a week or two here. Unfortunately, Calderon's absence was without explanation.
The meat of the schedule dumbness. Friday night's one-off non-conference game was the first competitive game at Yost since January 17th. The Big Ten schedule goes a month and a half with zero home conference games for Michigan. That should never, ever happen. This is when I want to be going to hockey games. But when your guy in charge of hockey doesn't know what hockey is, I guess that means you get nonsense like this year's conference schedule. There should never be conference bye weeks in the second half of the season.
1/15/2016 – Michigan 5, Ohio State 5 (OT) – 13-3-4, 4-1-2 Big Ten
1/18/2016 – Michigan 8, Ohio State 6 – 14-3-4, 5-1-2 Big Ten
I can't do better describing the alternating waves of euphoria and loathing this hockey season imposes on the fan than this guy who asked a question on twitter:
@mgoblog if this were football would Michigan be Baylor or Indiana?
— Grant Williams (@g_williams_1999) January 18, 2016
I was feeling pretty Indiana as Michigan looked set to drop Sunday's game. Three minutes later I was feeling pretty Baylor as 3-5 turned into 6-5.
The scoreline is everything. If you're up this is one of the most electric Michigan offenses since Brendan Morrison. If you're down this is just another late Berenson team that waddles around wasting its talent with mind-bending defensive breakdowns. Last weekend was a high-amplitude sine wave oscillating from one state to the other.
In the aftermath of an okay weekend we can see that both things are true. Michigan's top line of Motte-Compher-Connor is putting up numbers Michigan hasn't seen since Red's hair was actually red. Connor (18-18-36) is second nationally in PPG. Compher (7-25-32) is fifth. Motte (18-10-28) is tied for thirteenth. Motte and Connor are tied for the national lead in goals per game. If this keeps up someone is going to have to dig through the history books to see where those guys stack up.
Meanwhile someone tweeted out that it was "incredible" that Steve Racine had only given up five goals, and was entirely correct.
— Jeremy Parks (@j_mitchell47) January 17, 2016
That is one period! One period of hockey on skates and everything! Michigan skates five NHL draft picks on defense! Steve Racine has a .906 save percentage and he's kind of a hero!
Michigan was outshot 27-16 in that second period, fell behind by two goals, and proceeded to not allow Ohio State a shot until they had run off four consecutive goals in the first ten minutes of the third. So I dunno man.
So far they've managed to make it work, and as the season progresses their schedule looks less and less like an albatross. Each game Dartmouth wins both helps Michigan's tourney chances and slightly reframes how impressive Michigan's record is. With everything going right—about which more later—Michigan has a very good record against a reasonable schedule. Their RPI SOS is 20th and the rest of the season is split 50/50 between good teams and bad.
They're probably going to make it. Unless they don't. During the second intermission last night I was sure they weren't. I mean, anything can happen at any time. But they've built themselves a buffer here, and seem to be outracing their mistakes. Big Twelve Hockey is now a thing, and it lives in Ann Arbor.
Get in and anything can happen. This used to be a curse; now it feels like hope. Michigan switches between behemoth and bust multiple times a weekend. Indiana or Baylor? Ask again later.
Why did that even happen? For all the rivalry stuff that gets tossed around, OSU games aren't unusually chippy most of the time. The 8-6 series finisher was exceptionally clean throughout, largely because everybody was too busy scoring to hit people. Then all hell breaks loose in the aftermath, including an ugly incident where Cutler Martin punched a defenseless guy on the ice in full view of the world:
— Bill Rapai (@BRapai) January 18, 2016
I can't imagine Martin is going to be available for an important Penn State series after that. There was a bunch of other extracurriculars that might ensnare another player or two as well. All of it came seemingly out of nowhere.
I don't know what to make of the defense. When you're as bad as Michigan was this weekend it's not anything that is traceable to one player, or even the defense corps as a whole. Michigan has breakdowns all game every game from wingers, centers, and defensemen. I kind of thought things were getting fixed during the MSU series, but that was probably just MSU being very bad at hockey.
I do wish we'd held on to Andrew Copp. In retrospect Larkin was never going to stick around since he's an NHL all-star. Copp also went direct to the NHL but has 4 points in 41 games; his defensive abilities would be very welcome on this team.
OSU does not feel like a bad team. The contrast between OSU and MSU couldn't have been greater despite their similar records. Michigan spent half of the Friday game unable to get a clean zone exit because of the OSU forecheck. The Buckeyes are also super aggressive on penalty kills. They made a lot of mistakes in an attempt to control the game; contrast that with MSU's incredibly passive style. One of those styles has upside.
For big stretches of both games OSU took the game to Michigan; Michigan fought back and tilted the ice the other way after settling down and devising adjustments to what OSU was doing. The Buckeyes are very young this year; if they finish the year as strongly as they've played over the last month they could be a team to keep an eye on next year.
Man, Dan Dickerson is good. I'm not really a baseball person but I've heard bits and pieces of Tigers games for years because I'm often tuned to WTKA. Dickerson is their play by play guy, and while he's good it doesn't leap out at you because baseball is a slow, leisurely sport. Dickerson comes off as a very professional but standard baseball guy.
Hearing him do the games this weekend was a revelation. He was outstanding at a completely different variety of sport, one with a ton of things happening one after the other.
Here is a thought: Michigan needs a real play by play guy. Jim Brandstatter is a miscast color guy and I think everyone knows it; Michigan should add Dickerson to the booth. September might be tough but making it work would be good for everyone.
I thought Manny Legace was also good. He does the thing that goalies (in any sport) do where they focus a bit too much on the guy between the pipes, but he had a lot of interesting technical hockey things he related intelligibly.
A shootout doesn't matter to the pairwise so Michigan gets a win and a tie out of the weekend. Michigan slides up to 7th in the rankings. I am pleasantly surprised by this. I thought it would be tough for Michigan to move up much unless they had good weekends against PSU and Minnesota.
Why is this less grim than I was projecting early in the season?
- OSU won its tourney. Wins over BC and Cornell (8-0!) are inexplicable. They also give OSU a huge boost. Whereas before they were hanging out in MSU territory in RPI they're 38th now, ie, worth beating.
- BU has done well. They're 12th in RPI, which give Michigan a quality win bump in addition to helping them out with SOS.
- So has Dartmouth. They've won 5 of 6 and are just inside the top 20.
- Robert Morris is beating up on Atlantic Hockey. They're 21st in RPI, just a hair away from the quality win bump, and should continue that—they have a +32 goal differential in conference.
- The Big Ten is heavily stratified. Both PSU and Minnesota are in the top twenty while OSU, MSU, and Wisconsin cannot buy wins against the top of the league. This helps all three teams with at-large hopes thanks to QWB.
Everything that could go right for Michigan's RPI has over the past few weeks, which has moved Michigan off the bubble despite not having opponents who provide much traction.
Rooting interests remain obvious: for PSU and Minnesota and all of Michigan's nonconference opponents. You should double down on hating MSU—not that you have a problem with that—because they are so low in RPI that soon wins against them will not even count in Michigan's calculations, at which point MSU losses boost the rest of the Big Ten while not impacting M.