1/14/2011 – Michigan 3, Ferris State 2 – 14-6-4, 11-4-1 CCHA
1/15/2011 – Michigan 6, Ferris State 1 – 15-6-4, 12-4-1 CCHA
It's hard to get any emotional mileage from a game you saw on Comcast Local in a bar. The audio was trying to ignore Joe Buck calling an NFL game, the picture quality was 70s-vintage, and the camera was placed so close to the ice that not getting seasick was the main goal. Also it was a blowout.
Friday night, on the other hand, Michigan fell behind 2-0 and looked like they had let whatever momentum they'd gathered towards the back half of 2010 slip away. Commence well-practiced emo time.
Over the next four periods later they outscored a decent Ferris State team 8-0 en route to locking up a home-and-home sweep that sees them top the league* for the first time in over a year. Their goal differential is the best in the league. They're knocking on the door of a #1 seed in the tournament. And it's all a bit mystifying how.
At midseason it seemed like this team was just another middle of the road bunch that would make the tournament but didn't seem like much of a threat to do anything once there, as has been the MO for most Michigan teams since Red's great asskickers of the late 90s. It still kind of seems like that, but something else is creeping in: doubt.
I have the paradigm of a great Michigan team in my head. It has a 5'8" guy who could stickhandle through the Red Army. It has another guy who is a scoring machine thanks to the midget. It has a great craggy mountain of a defenseman who is impenetrable and another defenseman who is a completely insane goal pirate and therefore my favorite player on the team. It has Jed Ortmeyer, who is also my favorite player, and a goalie that everyone is secretly suspicious of.
This edition has some of those pieces, but lacks the magic midget, the mountain, and the swashbuckling nut. The midget is a loss keenly felt by everyone who sees Lindsay Sparks do something surprisingly dangerous and remembers Hensick/Cammalleri/Comrie et al. But the defensemen… in the defensemen may lie the secret of Michigan's success. Specifically, John Merrill.
Merrill came to Michigan with a ton of hype, surviving as the one member of Michigan's incredibly awesome 2010 recruiting class that arrived on campus with his draft status close to intact. That hype still fell far short of Jack Johnson's, and Merrill hasn't spun past an opposition forward on a routine breakout or murdered three guys on a single shift yet. His dad does not dance during the second intermission, not that anyone would notice if he did these days.
Despite that, Jon Merrill is a about ten times better than Jack Johnson was as a freshman. Johnson was insane even for my tastes. As a freshman he racked up an incredible 149 penalty minutes, most of them due to insane aggression. When it came to penalties Johnson was Tristin Llewellyn on speed, and that extended to the rest of his game. When he wasn't doing something ridiculous, he was doing something ridiculous.
Jon Merrill has four penalty minutes this year. Four! He plays all the time, against the top line, and has as many penalty minutes as Shawn Hunwick. That kind of brilliance only becomes apparent over time. Merrill takes tough situations and handles them elegantly in ways that his senior defense partner doesn't always. (Langlais had a rough first period on Friday.) He's emblematic of the entire corps, which consists of Merrill and Burlon and Langlais and Pateryn not making the sort of mistakes that made my veins throb in years past, or at least not many.
Michigan has always been the hare of college hockey, a high-tempo, high-variance team that racks up goals and penalty minutes. Their assets have always been obvious—that guy who can shoot the puck through a donkey, that first round draft pick. This is not a vintage Michigan team, but what it lacks in JMFJ thunder it may make up for with subtler qualities.
*[By winning percentage. Michigan is a point back of Notre Dame but has two games in hand—with conference wins worth three Michigan actually has a somewhat significant lead. Also if you're down here the next sentence says something about goal differential, by which I mean conference goal differential. Miami is better all things considered.]
Non-Bullets Of Well, Now
Though it's not that different. Michigan's ninth in GPG this year, just a tiny pip behind Miami and North Dakota. Most of the other big scorers are Air Force or locked in the insular (and usually not very good) ECAC, leaving just two teams—BC and Notre Dame—significantly outscoring them. Who knew?
Enter the Moffie. Man, Lee Moffie can sneak them in from the point, can't he? Twice in two games this weekend to go with a couple from his freshman year. If he could just play some defense he'd be in business.
Caveat: in a game earlier this season Moffie was a turnover machine and was subsequently benched for a good long time. He nosed himself ahead of Mac Bennett when Kevin Clare rotated in on Saturday but is liable to collapse.
This years Rolfe Memorial Who-Dat Senior. Will be no surprise, but it's Scooter Vaughn, who scored Saturday to reclaim his spot as the third leading goalscorer on the team behind only Hagelin and Wohlberg.
Pairwise watching, still in vague mode. Michigan moved up one spot to sixth with their sweep. You are now rooting for the Bulldogs to destroy the rest of their schedule; at 11-10-4 they're actually pretty good (11-7-3) when not playing Michigan and if they can nose their way into the top 25 in RPI Michigan's Pairwise comparisons will get a major bump. Ferris is currently 28th.
How bizarre. Michigan hosted a fascinating recruiting visitor on the Michigan State weekend: Max Domi. Yes, that Domi. The younger guy is a highly skilled forward who would be a top pick in the OHL draft if his dad wasn't worried about OHL kids seeing the name on his back and wanting to make a name for themselves. They're making seemingly sincere college noises, but as always with these things it's hard to tell if the interest is real or if it's just posturing for the draft.
Domi's still a couple years from college, FWIW, and won't help fill in the two or three blanks at forward in next years class.
Also bizarre. Miami has the sixth-best goal differential in the country—Michigan is eighth—but finds itself 18th in RPI and outside of the tourney in PWR. Their record isn't very pretty so they must be obliterating teams in their wins and losing narrowly in losses.
Kicking yourself. Michigan's non-wins this year include a tie after being up 4-0 on Mercyhurst, blowing two third period leads against UNH, and two losses in OT. OTOH, they scored with under a minute left to send one of those games to OT and got a tie out of Ferris State via the same Houdini act.
Comment over/under. Twelve, in marked contrast to anything about football these days.