An annual post informing/figuring out what's going on with the hockey team when football season ends.
Last year: On the one hand, Michigan tore through the final ten games of its schedule en route to its 20th straight NCAA tourney bid. They swept Michigan State at Munn in the ultimate karmic retribution, beat Miami at the Joe, beat Northern to clinch their tourney bid, and were one erroneous whistle away from a thrilling overtime win against Miami in the rematch and a Frozen Four bid.
On the other, Michigan needed every game of their CCHA tourney run to go their way or they would have been left out of the tourney entirely. After struggling to a .500 record more than halfway through the season, an uninspired group of Carl Hagelin and a bunch of guys who weren't very good seemed like obviously the worst Michigan team assembled since Red got his machine going back in the late eighties.
The question going into 2010: which was it, then?
Neither Great Nor Terrible
Eighteen games in, that's the answer. Michigan's part of what looks like it will be a three-way race for the league title with Miami and Notre Dame. Michigan is two points behind the Redhawks but has two games in hand; they are behind Notre Dame by virtue of a single shootout point. They've split with ND already and have played two of the three teams hovering around .500 in the league, so the schedule has been somewhere between representative and tough.
The nonconference has not been as kind. Michigan's 1-2-3 with ties against Mercyhurst, UNH, and Wisconsin, a loss to Minnesota, and a split against Nebraska-Omaha. That's a very difficult schedule—UNH is #3, UNO #10 while Wisconsin and Minnesota are middling WCHA teams—but nonconference losses are Pairwise anchors. Michigan's probably given away any shot at a #1 seed unless they rip through the second half schedule.
This is miles better than last year, when Michigan finished seventh(!) in the league and was .500 at the holiday break. If Michigan can take care of business against a 3-7-1 Michigan State team that's just as bad as it should be after losing all but a couple players with a hint of talent, they'll go into this break 10-5-4 with a solid head start at landing an at-large NCAA bid.
So why does this feel just like last year?
It's kind of just like last year. Carl Hagelin lacks the raw net-ripping scoring to carry the team offensively but is awesome in all phases and is the only Michigan player to be noticeable on almost every shift. Louie Caporusso is frustrating but somehow is tied for the team lead in points. A totally obscure senior forward has made himself a critical contributor (Lebler last year, Vaughn this year). Large stretches of every game are boring, defensive hockey not because that's how Michigan is trying to play but because there's no one on the team who can create chances for himself or his teammates. The power play: guh. Michigan's scoring margin this year is 13th nationally, right about where they finished last season.
The main differences:
They are not maniacal hackers any more. Michigan is traditionally amongst the national leaders in penalty minutes. Last year they were 15th. This year they're 22nd. Since a large chunk of those are coincidentals, I took a look at PP/G given up. Michigan is 33rd—essentially average. That's a big improvement. Michigan went 115 minutes against Notre Dame without going on the penalty kill.
The goaltending is average and could be better. Bryan Hogan was puttering around at .901 when the season ended and spent most of the year looking up at .900. This year he's splitting time with Hunwick, who is puttering along at .903 while Hogan is at .923. Put them together and Michigan's overall save percentage is slightly above average this year; last year it was ridiculously bad. Hogan's 19th nationally in SV% and is 7-2. Hunwick' 2-3-4 and just gave up a horrendous goal* to Ohio State that eventually proved to be the difference in a 3-2 OT loss—it may be time to give the job to Hogan full-time.
They don't have a defenseman who is killing the team. I've been rough on Llewellyn for the duration of his career so credit where it's due: he has been a steady presence on the backline to the point where I'd rather have him out there than Lee Moffie or a couple other offensive defensemen. I think he's had one penalty this year that I was like "aaaaargh" about, which is on par with the rest of the team. He's made a step forward. So has Pateryn, who I think should be seriously considered for a first-line shutdown role.
The things that are the same:
There is no grade A scorer. This is the point at which Louie Caporusso says "oh really" and starts sniping goals left and right but at this instant I'm down on his ability to do much other than shoot, which he doesn't do enough. Hagelin's outstanding but needs a pure scorer on his wing; he's got Rust and Lynch, who are not anywhere close.
The depth is weak. Michigan's picking between Scooter Vaughn and Luke Glendening when they're figuring out the second line. No offense to those guys but that's two guys who would have a third line ceiling on a truly good Michigan team. Meanwhile, Chris Brown has two goals and AJ Treais—the designated tiny stick ninja and the U18 team's leading scorer—three, one of them a pinball gift.
There probably isn't a true shut-down defenseman. Michigan's top pairing has been Chad Langlais and Jon Merrill, and while both have been good neither is a physical presence like a Mitera or Komisarek. Pateryn might be, but those guys were first round picks and he was a 5th or 6th who's still developing.
This is a frustrating team. They'll play two games that are exactly the same over the course of the weekend. They will lose one. They will win one. Most of the time the outcome of either game seems heavily dependent on luck. See last weekend against Ohio State or the Notre Dame split. Last weekend Michigan dominated a bad team territorially and in shots and got a split because they hardly had any scoring chances and Hunwick let in a soft goal. Against Notre Dame they played a fairly even game but eventually ended up on the short end in shots and chances. They won on Saturday because three pucks wandered into the net of their own volition and Chad Langlais was the only person on the ice who realized Chad Langlais had the puck.
Unlike last year's team, they're not undisciplined enough or poor enough in goal to lose many games against the dregs of the CCHA. The Ohio State loss was the first one that could truly be considered bad; all games against the bottom rungs of the league have alternated periods of Michigan dominance with (long, so very long) periods of aimless whatever in which neither team really does anything. That adds up to a 5-1 record against teams that aren't legitimately good, and that coupled with Michigan's ability to tread water against the elite should see them finish second or third in the league—it appears Miami is again the class of the league and should prove that over the course of the year—and get a two or three seed in the tournament, where they'll have to get lucky to advance.
It's not all bad, but it's not what the thrilling run at the end of last year promised. I guess that was too good to last—you can only live on adrenaline so long before it loses its effect.
*(The first one, not the one with under ten seconds.)