3/18/16 – Michigan 7, Penn State 2 – 23-7-5, 12-5-3 Big Ten
3/19/16 – Michigan 5, Minnesota 3 – 24-7-5, 12-5-3 Big Ten, Big Ten Tourney champions
It takes me a while to grasp what a hockey player is like. Part of that is just the game: most of the time even the best players are on the bench, and then there are ten guys trying to control a puck that bounces around. It takes time for a player new to college to establish what he's going to be, and then further time for me to figure it out. Like, I thought Dylan Larkin was a good player. I couldn't describe his game like I could describe Zach Hyman's. Hyman, a senior, was excellent in the corners and capable of bursting from the boards to the net-front with little warning. Once there he had a deft touch at the net front. Larkin… scored a lot.
Like Larkin the year before, Kyle Connor has put up points in buckets without having a distinct on-ice personality for much of this year. That has gradually changed as the season progressed and Connor kept scoring on one-timers from absurd angles, kept dropping saucer passes directly on his teammates' sticks. A debate about which Michigan player should be their primary Hobey candidate went from wide open to probably Connor.
In the aftermath of a Big Ten Tournament in which Connor scored a natural hat trick in nine minutes and left Eric Schierhorn in a heap of self-loathing with this…
…both the Hobey and personality issues have been resolved. Connor for Hobey, because he is an all-around offensive dynamo.
He is fast. Everything is fast. His skating is fast. His shot gets out fast and travels fast. He is precise. Everything is precise. His ability to hit the water bottle from one knee on a one timer is something I've never seen from a Michigan player, even Hilbert or Tambellini. Seemingly every game now sees a saucer pass that elevates itself a good foot off the ice and then lands perfectly flat on a teammate's stick.
On Michigan's rampant power play he calmly checked options high and across before sliding the puck to Motte at the side of the goal. The pass was not remarkable in itself, but the process by which Connor moved the defense around with his posture and the fact that at any moment he might do something Kyle-Connor-esque opened up an opportunity. This was the weekend when Connor went from a guy on an awesome line to the guy on the awesome line, and that's no slight to Motte or Compher. I mean, go back to that Vine and check the pass that got Connor the opportunity and who it's from. JT Compher is awesome. He's not the guy.
And so Michigan grabs a banner. As banners go it's not exactly a monumental achievement—it's on par with the GLI in games played. But it goes up in the Yost rafters anyway. More importantly, Michigan got another week further away from the alarming Ohio State meltdown. I'll take two even-strength goals allowed on a weekend. Two goals is more or less a shutout for this team.
Even when Minnesota scored three consecutive goals to take the lead on Saturday those felt like things that will happen in hockey games, and not an endless parade of unchecked opponents in the slot. Sorting out the signal from the noise in hockey requires a lot of feelingsball, and my feeling is that the team has responded to the OSU debacle with four of their most defensively responsible games of the season.
Extending that streak of games that don't make fans want to pull their hair out was more important than the actual trophy; mission accomplished. Having Kyle Connor definitively stamp his name on this season, nationwide, is a bonus.
Michigan enters the most bowel-rending postseason known to man firing on at least most of their many, many cylinders. It could all blow up in a second, because hockey. It could all blow up because this hockey team has many guns, some of which point at their own feet. It could blow up because the universe hates you. There are many ways in which doom comes in single-elimination playoff hockey. But if you squint and forget about two weeks ago…
On the opposition. I haven't seen any Notre Dame hockey this year but at a glance they look like a typical Jeff Jackson team: fast, disciplined, slightly D-oriented. They score just over 3 goals a game (good for 15th)* and give up just over two (14th). They are reasonably good at everything and not great at any one thing. They're good-ish on the PP and good-ish on the PK. They spread their scoring out. Nobody's got more than 13 goals but six guys are in double digits.
As far as common opponents go, ND split with Penn State, Minnesota, and BU. They're just 19-10-7 but KRACH ranks their schedule difficulty 10th; Michigan languishes in 32nd. Both KRACH and RPI have this a game between #7 and #12, so Michigan got a slight break there—emphasis, however, is on slight. ND is a whisker behind Yale and Harvard.
Should be an exciting game. ND has a lot of draft picks and gets in your face on the forecheck.
*[Yes, the #15 O in the country is almost two goals a game worse than Michigan.]
Welp. Downing picked up a game misconduct for a crosscheck to the head delivered to a player who was on the opposite side of the ice from the puck and not even looking at him. That was his third of the season and brought with it a mandatory suspension from the title game; given his track record I wouldn't have been surprised to see another game added on for an incident that was pure violence without even the whisper of a legit hockey play.
At least that incident seems like a relapse by now. Downing got chippy late in those Ohio State games but so did a lot of Michigan players; when faced with games that were not inexplicable three or four goal deficits Downing's been even keel for the last couple months.
In his absence… Sam Piazza stepped in and Michigan didn't skip a beat. They even inserted Piazza next to De Jong on the nominal top pairing, which speaks both to Michigan's confidence in their D one through six and their confidence in Piazza—who also absorbed Downing's PP minutes—himself. And he's repaid that confidence, with a 1-5-6 line, a +7 rating, and zero penalties in 16 games. That is an incredible luxury to have as your seventh defenseman.
Getting more active. Both De Jong and Boka have been much more noticeable presences near the opposition's goal over the past few weeks. Michigan is doing a lot more rotation between forwards and D, which goes a long way towards making your cycle unpredictable enough to generate 5x5 chances. I still remember a vintage Minnesota team from a while back—the one on which Jordan Leopold, a defenseman, won the Hobey—that was terrifying specifically because they were the best at using their defensemen to generate 5x5 scoring chances. Michigan is not that, but I think they'll be in good shape next year as those two guys get older.
Good lord, the power play. Yes, I expect to score on every power play now. Michigan was 6/9 this weekend. (Nice.) They had excellent chances on two of the three they did not manage to convert; it is a machine unlike any I've seen at M. They lead the country, converting at 32%(!), and are 17/29(!!!) over their last six games.
Mandatory attendance rant. There was nobody at this tournament even when Minnesota was there. It's embarrassing, and it's unnecessary. Michigan and Penn State averaged 97% of capacity this year and played in front of a few hundred people. A best two out of three series at Yost ends up with 40-60 times the attendance of this neutral-site farce.
There is no fixing this. Nobody but Minnesota fans and the odd Wisconsin fan will show in St. Paul. Nobody but Michigan fans will show in Detroit. The geographic realities of the Big Ten demand a return to home sites if anyone is ever going to show.
College hockey refuses to acknowledge this. Just yesterday the WCHA commissioner unveiled the "Big Idea". Prepare to be underwhelmed:
While the logistics, of which there would be many, still need to be worked out, the basic idea is to host all three conference tournaments for the WCHA, Big Ten, and NCHC in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area on the same weekend, and stagger the start times as much as possible to allow fans the opportunity to see as many games as possible. While not mentioned in the article, one rumor suggested all three conference tournament finals then being played on the final day of the season at the XCel Energy Center. The idea is to turn the weekend into a festival of college hockey for the city.
That's great for St. Paul, I guess. It's terrible for everyone in the Big Ten other than Minnesota and should be a non-starter. The idea that people who aren't interested in going to their own conference tournament will be convinced because teams they don't play against are also having a tournament is fanciful, and that permanently shuts out every Big Ten fanbase other than the Gophers. It's an idiotic idea. So of course:
The Big Ten seems the most interested at the moment, with B1G deputy commissioner and most hated man in college hockey Brad Traviolia admitting that is one of many potential options they will discuss and consider for the future, saying "We recognize that the attendance hasn’t been what we had hoped" under the current set-up.
College hockey is not big enough for neutral site playoffs other than the Frozen Four, period. I will never understand why they keep trying.