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.