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.
3/11/2016 – 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.
2/19/2016 – 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.
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.