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2/5/2016 – Michigan 2, MSU 3(OT) – 16-4-4, 7-2-2 Big Ten
2/6/2016 – Michigan 4, MSU 1 – 17-4-4, 8-2-2 Big Ten
Hey. I don't really have a column this week that's not the thing I keep saying about this rickety deathwagon of a team. This is that take again. I'm sorry, but both teams crested 40 shots in Friday night's game. There's only one take to have.
Let's drill down from the weekend series to a smaller bit of it wherein the crux of our hope and frustration with this bonkers hockey team is made clear: Michigan came out on Saturday and blew MSU's doors off. They only got one goal but outshot the opposition 20-3. It's hockey, it happens, this is why one-game neutral site single elimination is dumb, etc.
The next period was spent in a rearguard action against one of the worst teams in the country; MSU got off something like 13 of the first 14 shots and finished the period 17-8 to the good. That fairly reflected the play on the ice.
The scoring not so much. Michigan extended its lead when the rampant top line scored a goal worthy of the eventual all-Michigan Hobey finalist trio, because that's how they do. Then Michigan scored a couple more times and like fine okay let's just ignore the bit when they just about fell off the surfboard.
It's tougher to do that when the previous night was an actual loss against the aforementioned very bad team, and not even one where luck had much to do with it. MSU played Michigan dead even for much of the weekend. This is our concern, dude. Michigan's performance did not feel any more like a "throw out the records" rivalry performance any more than Michigan ending up down multiple goals in back-to-back games against Wisconsin did. It's just who they are.
After three years out of the tourney I'll take it, and because it's a weird year in college hockey (Quinnipiac is your #1 overall seed if the season ended today) and the playoff format remains a one-game free-for-all we might as well get back in with a team straight out of the 1980s. It's hard to see anyone stopping Michigan; it's equally hard to see them stopping anyone. At least there will be fireworks along the way.
This weekend amply demonstrated my fears going into the Big Ten schedule: Michigan slid two spots after the Friday loss and went nowhere despite geting the road bump after the Saturday win. MSU is RPI quicksand that only allows you to go down. Michigan is mercifully done with them, at least.
Anyway: Michigan is sixth. They are secure barring a complete collapse (ie, < .500) down the stretch. The remaining schedule is reasonable. There are four games against the league's top half and four against the bottom half with an odd one-off against Ferris thrown in the mix.
It's all but impossible to predict the way things shake out this far away from the end of the season but if Michigan drops 2-3 games they probably stay a 2. The one seed doesn't matter much since Michigan is far away from grabbing #1 or #2* and the (somewhat) easier road through an Atlantic Hockey or weak autobid opponent. Meanwhile as per usual the committee barely has a Midwest regional; it's in Cincinnati this year.
*[The gap between Michigan and Quinnipiac is about as big as the gap between Michigan and the bubble.]
As per usual I can't tell you why Michigan is so bad on defense. The lineup shuffling induced by Cooper Marody coming down with mono didn't help, as it stuck Selman out there as a center when he'd played wing for most of the year. But that's a minor thing that does not explain why Michigan likes only one thing as much as scoring, and that's leaving guys wide open in the slot.
Is what it is ever since Mel left.
The second line. The second line is Warren-Marody-Calderone, at least when Marody is healthy. That's why Dancs went to the Nieves line and Selman filled in for Marody. Michigan did miss Marody quite a bit, I think.
Downing playing better. Yes, he did dive to take away a passing lane and ended up disrupting Racine on one of MSU's goals over the weekend. Yes, there was a 2-on-0 on which he shot. Even so he was much more settled than he has been recently. When he's not taking five-minute penalties or offering up free odd-man rushes with low upside decisions you can see why he was a hyped draft prospect. He's big and smooth with the puck.
I'm not expecting him to suddenly be Mark Mitera; some level of error is a guarantee with him. It is nice to see him go most of a game without doing something that causes me to write and delete tweets.
Ferreal, all Michigan Hobey finalist list. The top ten in PPG:
Points Per Game: GP G- A- P P/GM 1 Kyle Connor (WPG) Michigan 25 20-24-44 1.76 2 Jimmy Vesey (NSH) Harvard 22 18-17-35 1.59 3 Andrew Poturalski New Hampshire 28 21-23-44 1.57 4 Max French Bentley 25 18-21-39 1.56 Tyler Motte (CHI) Michigan 25 25-14-39 1.56 6 JT Compher (COL) Michigan 25 10-28-38 1.52 7 Tyler Kelleher New Hampshire 28 7-33-40 1.43 Zac Lynch Robert Morris 28 20-20-40 1.43 9 Colin White (OTT) Boston College 25 16-19-35 1.40 Jake Guentzel (PIT) Omaha 25 12-23-35 1.40
That is and continues to be absolutely bonkers. Michigan has never done that, even when they were pairing Hesick and Porter.
Where did Piazza go? He got scratched this weekend despite Marody's absence, and right after his best moment of the season. Best I can figure is Michigan didn't want to double-shift on the fourth line with Marody out of the lineup and he got the axe. If Downing is having a pleasant phase I'm hard pressed to say who should sit amongst the six guys who did play in favor of Piazza; the optics there are still weird.
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, December 11, 2015
#9 Michigan 8, Minnesota 3
Mich 1 Minn 0 EV 00:16 Motte (10) from Compher (13) & Connor (11)
Michigan wins the opening faceoff, and the puck rolls into their defensive zone. Downing moves it to Connor along the left boards, and he cuts across the neutral zone. Connor sees Motte near the blue line and lobs it up for him, but the pass is off target. You can see in the screen cap that a Minnesota defender has his stick out to take away the passing lane; the puck hits it and rolls to Compher (circled).
Compher carries in and turns back before he has to skate through a wall. Motte reads Compher’s movement and creeps down, and he’s left alone because a Minnesota defender is clinging to the boards (he’s the one partially in the circle around Motte). That’s fine if your team has the puck, but Compher had possession the entire time. It seems like he’s assuming that the two guys at the red line are going to strip the puck and send it up the boards quickly, but when Motte starts skating down staying on the boards isn’t staying very aware of the situation.
The goalie was looking to the corner and does a nice job reading the pass, standing, and trying to square to the new shooter, but Motte’s shot beats his reaction time.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest]
UM 1 MSU 0 EV 01:43 Downing (5) from Calderone (6) and Nieves (14)
Tony Calderone gets the puck via a stretch pass Boo Nieves makes from along the boards in Michigan’s defensive zone. The pass comes from the same spot Nieves wasn’t able to gain control of the puck last Friday (which subsequently led to a Spartans goal), so it’s nice to see him seal the puck and get it out of the zone this weekend. Calderone skates to the red line before walking it back up the boards in an effort to avoid the MSU defender.
Michigan State’s defenders have collapsed around the net, which is typical of their style. That’s not really a criticism; if you’re going to give up shots from the point and your goaltender is Jake Hildebrand you’re probably going to do alright. Calderone passes to the blur at the top of the screen cap. That blur is Downing, and it’s easy to see how much he’s able to put on the shot from the camera’s inability to focus on him.
It looks to me like the puck goes under the defenseman’s stick and beats Hildebrand on his blocker side in the little green square I’ve drawn on the screen cap. This isn’t a good goal for him to give up; despite having a defenseman in front of him in the screen cap he was able to track the puck and squared himself to the shot. That d-man in his view came in after the pass had been made to Downing and Hildebrand was starting to butterfly.
[After THE JUMP: Darth Vader makes an appearance, and it’s not in discussing MSU or Dave Brandon]
Friday, January 23rd, 2015
UW 1 UM 0 PPG 02:48 LaBate from Dougherty and Schulze
Michigan starts in a box on the penalty kill when Andrew Copp comes up high to attack the puck near the point. Wisconsin passes the puck down the boards and then back up to the blue line, and as Copp turns he runs into what is essentially a pick being set by Grant Besse. When Copp came up high someone else (Tyler Motte) should have moved over to cover the opposite side of the ice. He doesn’t, and Michigan ends up having three of their four defenders smushed together.
The pass gets through because of Motte’s error, but he isn’t the only one who makes a mistake here. Kevin Lohan needs to be lower in order to eliminate the backdoor player and step up and tie up the guy in the center of the crease if need be.
Leave the middle of the ice undefended and it’s not surprising what happens next. Zach Werenski hesitates and it looks like he’s trying to take away both the pass and shot, and the result is that he takes away neither. Dougherty passes to LaBate for an easy tap in.
[After THE JUMP: Michigan scores with Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind]