2/16/2018 – Michigan 4, Notre Dame 2 – 15-13-3, 10-10-3 Big Ten
2/18/2018 – Michigan 1, Notre Dame 0 – 16-13-3, 11-10-3 Big Ten
About halfway through the third period on Sunday I started to wonder about 1-0 victories, specifically how long it had been since Michigan had made one lousy goal stand up. (ENGs do not count for our reckoning.) I probably should not have done that. It's the kind of thinking you deeply regret when a puck passes behind the goaltender and still deeply regret even when it miraculously squirts out the other side. I still thought it, though. It seemed plausible Michigan would accomplish this thing.
The answer turns out to be shockingly recent: on February 15th of last year Zach Nagelvoort had a 42-save shutout as Michigan squeezed by OSU 1-0 thanks to a Nick Pastujov goal. But the larger wonderment still stands, I think, because you have to go all the way back to the 2011 Life As A Vole national semifinal against North Dakota to hit the next one.
Those games were similar in that both featured Michigan scoring a weird early goal and then hanging on for dear life. They got outshot 2 to 1 in both, and at no point until the final buzzer or blessed Scooter Vaughn empty net goal did victory seem probable. I know this about the 2011 North Dakota game because I remember every terrifying moment of the third period. I know this about last year's Ohio State game, which I probably did not watch, because I saw other games that hockey team played. At no point during either game did anyone wonder about 1-0 victories, because clearly this would not be a 1-0 game.
So they are very different than Sunday's 1-0 win against then-#1 Notre Dame, in which Michigan outshot the Irish by a large margin 5x5. Two power plays and another two minutes of frantic face-clenching action after ND pulled their goalie got ND to near-parity, but not quite, and when the buzzer sounded Michigan had finished its four games against the Big Ten's best team having outplayed them everywhere except their penalty kill. And on Sunday they'd done it in a very un-Michigan way: by matching Notre Dame's relentless discipline.
Each team had one opportunity at a three on two, sort of. Depending on how you want to classify odd-man rushes, it might have been zero. Notre Dame's didn't even get inside the Michigan blue line. I don't think I've ever seen Michigan have a game where they don't give up an odd-man rush. Maybe it's happened against a tomato can here and there, but probably not. The last five or so years of Michigan hockey has been about trying to outscore your mistakes, which they managed to do when they the Connor-Motte-Compher line and at no other point.
It's taken a while for new-era Michigan to work past the recent chaos. Since resuming in January, it appears they have. They're 8-5-1 against a slate of opponents who—except for Michigan State—are all either in the tournament or plausibly on the bubble. That's not the greatest run in the history of hockey; it has been good enough to take them from the deep 20s to a three seed. Expecting more would be insane. Just last year Michigan was hovering amongst the very worst teams in college hockey in Corsi...
white included to demonstrate that there ain't no more teams
...and this year they're a point or two above average. This is a one year turnaround that matches what Mel did when he arrived at Michigan Tech. Tantalizingly, he had another gear from there.
Tech won 13 games the next year and 14 in 2013-14, the first year of college hockey's new landscape. This alone is impressive in the modern context of Tech hockey; that's the first time Tech had won double-digit games since Bob Mancini did it from 1993 to 1996.
That alone would not be impressive enough to grab the Michigan job, but then Pearson had the following three seasons:
- 29-10-2, at-large bid to tourney as #2 seed, #5 ES Corsi*
- 23-9-5, WCHA regular season champs, #3 ES Corsi
- 23-15-7, WCHA playoff champs, NCAA bid, #3 ES Corsi
Unless Michigan hits the Jack Hughes jackpot, Michigan's not going to have another Connor or Larkin for a couple years here. The recruiting pipeline dried up a little deep into the Red era, so they'll have to make do with guys who grind their way up the ranks year by year, like Tony Calderone. It's been tough for Michigan to win with just those guys of late; transcendent talent was needed, and even then it wasn't always enough.
There's no transcendent talent this year. Even Quinn Hughes is a year away from being able to tell when he should plunder the opposition crease and when he should stay back. Michigan scores goals like the one lousy one they made stand up on Sunday: forcing a defensive zone turnover from the opposition and flinging it in over the goalie's shoulder before the defense can re-set. But it works, because they can go a whole game without giving up an odd man rush. For anyone who watched the last few years of Michigan hockey that sounds like a 180 on a dime in a leaky battleship.
Michigan looks ahead of schedule in year one, headed for a wide-open tourney with a couple of recent one-seed Ws painted on its nose cone. It turns out that Mel Pearson was exactly the right guy. Not because he's been in Ann Arbor for 30 years already. Because he'd already walked into a reclamation project with a power washer and some 20-year-olds.
I said last week that sweeping ND was close to a lock at-large, and whatever particularly devastating combination of events would have made that statement untrue have not come to pass. CHN just ran its Pairwise Predictor—20k Monte Carlo simulations of the rest of the season—and Michigan comes out with a 95% chance of a bid, and a two-thirds chance to get a 3 seed or better.
That doesn't mean this weekend's series doesn't matter. Those projections weight games according to KRACH, the statheads' preferred college hockey ranking system, and one of the main reasons Michigan is in near-lock territory is because that system gives Michigan an 82% chance to win any particular game against Arizona State. Splitting this weekend puts Michigan back down in the danger zone:
1-1 this weekend puts Michigan at 13 or 14, most likely
Dave pointed out on the podcast that this year is ripe for bid steals because most of the top spots in the Pairwise are NCHC or Big Ten teams. Providence and Northeastern are the only HE teams currently in the tourney; BC and BU collectively have a ~34% chance to steal a Hockey East Bid. Cornell and Clarkson are the only ECAC teams in at-large spots. CHN gives those two teams a whopping 79% shot at winning the playoff title, but if Cornell does go down a bid steal is likely. Minnesota State is the only WCHA team currently in the field; that's another 38% shot at a steal.
It is possible for Michigan to fall to 14 if they sweep Arizona State and then get swept in the first round of the playoffs by a decent PSU or Wisconsin team, and at that point they'd be vulnerable if two bids get stolen. They are not entirely out of the woods but they'd have to blow it pretty hard to even put themselves in a spot where an odd combination of results booted them.
This weekend is one for focus, though.