3/24/2018 – Michigan 3, Northeastern 2 – 21-14-3
3/25/2018 – Michigan 6, Boston U 3 – 22-14-3, Frozen Four
— Michigan Hockey (@umichhockey) March 25, 2018
I've seen NCAA tournament games like Sunday's before: one team gets down, and gets desperate, and dumps all that energy into a relentless pursuit of the puck. Sometimes it's Michigan overturning a 3-0 deficit against Denver to win. Sometimes it's Boston College dominating just about every second despite being down 2-1. Most of the time when this team gets even, they keep going. BC's tying goal in 2004 was game over even if it took overtime. Shots were 45-17 in a game Michigan led the vast majority of. If North Dakota had scored on Shawn Hunwick, that was also game over.
So: Sunday. After about 30 minutes where Michigan had the edge in zone time and staked themselves to a two-goal lead, BU scores on a wraparound, then amps up their forecheck. The ice tilts their direction. When Quinn Hughes isn't on the ice, Michigan barely attempts a controlled zone exit, instead flinging the puck up the boards to BU defensemen. They dump it back in to continue the cycle. The game started to feel like Michigan's recent Big Ten playoff outing against Wisconsin, which this space called Michigan's worst of the year despite the fact that they won it.
And BU scores. They score when Josh Norris flips a pass back to Joe Cecconi in the face of two forecheckers. Cecconi makes a bad situation worse by trying to fling the puck up the slot. Turnover, unchecked guy directly in front of goalie with puck, goal, tie game, game over feeling.
The ensuing three minutes are more of the same; Michigan does not register a shot attempt and BU has a couple of dangerous chances. Then Slaker takes the puck out of the zone—a tiny flag is waved—and gets rubbed out on the boards. This is about the least threatening way hockey players can be configured:
Slaker duly follows up on the defenseman the puck is wandering towards, and then something magical and very very stupid happens. That guy's attempted D to D pass gets caught up in the snow around the bench and turns into a perfect lead pass for Slaker. Horrified, the defenseman explodes in a shower of equipment and collapses to the ground, where he remains even now. Slaker then skates into the slot and shoots a puck off the other defenseman's shin that goes straight into the net. Various larger flags are waved.
That's more or less it. Michigan puts up an insurance marker a bit later but in a game like hockey even when you're playing badly and giving up a bunch of zone time to the opposition, a one goal lead is usually enough with 13 minutes left. They put up a stat at the beginning of the third that Michigan was a brazillion and one when leading after two and BU was 2-6 when trailing.
Slaker's goal combined with Michigan's second, which bounced off the end boards and behind the goalie directly to Brendan Warren, and the BU wrap-around goal to lend the proceedings the distinct whiff of Barely Weighted Hockey Plinko. This is why it was very exciting to get in the tournament: it's usually pretty random and this year there is no dominant team that threatens to make it less so. The top seed got blown up by Air Force, which is a movie we've seen before.
Once you're there, though… I have to admit that mixed in with the hope and nervousness is a certain nihilism, because of this terrible format and hockey's failure to address the goalie revolution that shot save percentages skyward. I shook my fist at hockey plinko when Northeastern scored to even a game in which Michigan had a 2-to-1 shot advantage, and muttered something positive about it under my breath when Michigan scored on a harmless-looking play to retake the lead. They don't quite even out.
But here they are, no more or less deserving than Carl Hagelin or TJ Hensick or dozens of other Michigan hockey players who had the misfortune to have the puck bounce the wrong way instead of the right way. Cooper Marody, Tony Calderone, and Dexter Dancs wiped out the best line in the country in game one; Quinn Hughes spent the weekend looking like he had rockets in his skates; the team as a whole mercifully stayed out of the box for the vast majority of both games. Insofar as it's possible to earn anything in single elimination hockey, Michigan has earned their way to their first Frozen Four in seven years.
May our continued existence continue to entertain the hockey gods.
PONCHO TIME? Hockey borrowed something from basketball.
— Michigan Hockey (@umichhockey) March 25, 2018
I'll allow it.
This is too random. Some randomness in a tourney is fun. Without it there's no point in playing. Too much randomness and the format is clearly broken, with annually unsatisfying champions that have no real claim to being the best team. This is too random:
After going 12-0 against No. 4s in the first three years, No. 1s are 31-21. A No. 4 seed has won at least one game against a No. 1 in each of the last 13 seasons. Since realignment came about, No. 4 seeds have won eight of 12. …
In the case of those four seeds that became national champions — Yale in 2013 and Providence in 2015 — they were the last teams in the tournament. Providence qualified by .0002 RPI points over Bowling Green in 2015. This year, Duluth was the last team in by .0001 points over Minnesota. In any other year, UMD would've been a No. 4 as well. However, BU, Princeton and Michigan Tech winning their conference tournaments changed all of that.
Air Force turtled against SCSU and got lucky, like they did against Michigan some years back. The prevalence of blocked shots and super high save percentages makes that strategy pay off way too often; the sport should take radical steps to increase scoring, so that individual games are more indicative of who's actually better at doing hockey.
Stayed out of the box! Four power plays against on the weekend. One fairly badass goal from Northeastern and that's it. Given the margins here any more would have been disastrous.
But it was rough against BU. Per College Hockey News, Michigan was out-shot-attempted 63-31 at even strength. M helped bridge that gap by blocking almost a third of BU's attempts (19); BU only blocked 6 of Michigan's. Michigan benefited from the randomness this year. Hooray.
I take solace in the fact that Michigan played ND dead even this year and it didn't seem like the Irish were ever able to lock Michigan in their own zone like BU did, even when they trailed in both games of the Michigan sweep.
If Michigan does get OSU that's… sort of okay? 0-5 on the year is far from ideal, but the playoff outing was just about even at 5v5, and even though Michigan was swept in multi-goal games in late January they had huge ES Corsi advantages in both games. (55-31 and 43-23.) I ain't scared of those guys.
Hughes. Before this season my personal ranking of defensemen I've seen play for Michigan went like this:
- Jacob Trouba
- Mike Komisarek
- Zach Werenski
- Jack Johnson
- Jon Merrill
Hughes is flying up the list despite not even being drafted yet. He's… #3? I think I'd take him over Werenski. His absurd skating nullifies most of his size deficiencies…
Michigan up 3-2 after 2. Quinn Hughes a factor at both ends. Here’s Hughes (5-10, 175) on the PK against Jordan Greenway (6-6, 230). Michigan cleared the zone on this one, too, with Hughes skating it out of trouble. Playing as well as I’ve seen him all year. pic.twitter.com/zWogCSRMTH
— Chris Peters (@chrismpeters) March 25, 2018
…and late in the year he's learned what he can do at this level. He's still a bit wild and will turn the puck over in a bad spot a couple times per game, but that's because he's trying—and largely succeeding at—stuff that nobody else has the ability to even attempt. Here's an excellent twitter thread highlighting some of the things he did in the BU game.