Catching Up With Hockey

Submitted by Brian on December 5th, 2013 at 12:25 PM

An annual tradition: the post where I spit out a bunch of hockey thoughts right after football season ends.

Andrew Copp emoji state.

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AT RIGHT: Friday night immediately after OT goal

They are going to the tournament. Michigan's fantabulous 10-2-1 record has come against a tough slate of opponents; unadjusted win percentage has M's opponent's third; the more sophisticated KRACH system has them 12th. As a result they are second in both RPI and KRACH, behind only Minnesota. They're also tied for second in the revamped Pairwise*. Unless they implode, Michigan is on pace for a bid. Hell, they're on pace for a one seed.

They are living on the edge. Michigan isn't as good as their record. Don't take it from me, take it from Red, who said something along those lines a few weeks ago. They have played only three games not decided by one goal: 3-1 over BC, 6-0 over Niagara, and 7-4 over RIT. Hooray winning one goal games and all, but:

  • Michigan is 3-0-1 in five minute OT sessions.
  • Their goalies have a collective .937, and that's not because every shot is from the blue line.
  • Shots for and against are dead even at 428.
  • Pythagorean expectation (upshot: goal differential is a better predictive metric than record) works just as well in the NHL as it does MLB, and Michigan is 7th in scoring margin, way behind the Gophers.

Who's happy with #7 in goal differential? Everybody. But they're not playing like the elite team their record and the rankings suggest. There's no denying they've had a hefty helping of fortune so far and replaying this season results in a record this good maybe 5% of the time.

The blue line is a large problem. Bennett's great; everyone else is worrisome at best. The OSU comeback Monday was a collection of gross errors from the defense corps, from Chiasson wandering out to a player behind the net without putting his stick down, thus allowing a centering pass right through him, to Downing sliding his way behind the net on a 4 on 3. On Friday, Clare threw a blind backhand pass behind his own net with three minutes left in a one goal game instead of chipping the puck out of the zone; five seconds later it was no longer a one-goal game.

With Serville hurt, Michigan turned to junior forward Andrew Sinelli as the #6 D, and my buddy and I went from panicking about this to wondering if Michigan would sit Clare in favor of him when Serville was back. Since he hardly saw a shift late Monday you'd think the answer to that is undoubtedly "no," but Spath says he's threatening Serville:

"I like his quickness," Berenson said. "He's a good skater. He goes back to get the puck and he'll win that race. He'll take a hit to make a play. And he's a defensive forward so he has good defensive instincts in our zone."

Szuma missed some time with a concussion but after a long and thorough rest, he's back at practice. It appears, though, that for now, Sinelli has won the job and he will be given every chance to compete with Serville to be the Maize and Blue's sixth defenseman.

Chiasson has apparently slid past Serville to solidify his job, which makes sense to me. Clare holding his spot without threat… not so much.

Sinelli is much defter with the puck than most of Michigan's available defensemen and surprisingly physical for a small guy. He effectively pinned a bunch of guys to the boards and didn't make any glaring errors. He could help. This is both an endorsement of Sinelli and a cocked eyebrow at the rest of the crew.

But hey Bennett. Getting any scoring from the D has been the main issue with Michigan's offense so far. They're 16th in scoring with virtually no contribution from the D. Bennett pulled both of those OSU games out of the fire, first with the great stretch pass embedded above, then with a plunge into the goal mouth to take a cross-ice pass from Chiasson(!) to complete the World's Most Dangerous Goal.

If that had rebounded such that OSU got a quick breakout that was a 3-on-1 developing with Di Giuseppe back. Yikes. But it went in, so hooray.

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Guptill's penalty shot against BU is one of five goals on the year for him [Bill Rapai]

The forwards are deep with little top end. I love me some Copp and Compher, who just scored two of the dirtiest crease goals Michigan's put in since… well, it's been a while since Michigan's had a true goalmouth fiend. Those guys bring value beyond their scoring lines and both are at a PPG.

But while it seems like Di Giuseppe, Nieves, Moffatt, and Guptill is a hell of a supporting cast, not a lot is happening 5 on 5 here. Those scoring line veterans have six goals 5v5 in 13 games. That's a little disappointing. The power play, clicking at 25%, is keeping everybody afloat right now; they're going to have to get some more even strength production if they're going to keep winning games if and when the save percentage and PP come back to earth.

Speaking of clicking. The turnaround in the power play is kind of incredible. Last year their single idea was get the puck to Trouba, and this was an okay enough idea to get Michigan to 19%. The year before they were completely miserable at 15%; they were at 17% the year before. All of these numbers seemed deserved.

This year's number also seems deserved. Michigan gets much better puck movement and regularly finds guys for cross-ice bombs that have been the most effective way to put the puck in the net since NHL 94. I don't get why it's happening this year instead of previous years, but I'll take it.

Inexplicable player enthusiasm of the year. Always one guy on the team who does nothing statistically but I find a way to advocate anyway, and this year it's Zach Hyman. Hyman's 1-2-3 line is obviously bleah. I still manage to think that he's much better at coming out of the corners with a purpose than anyone else on the team and should be flanked by two skilled players to take advantage of his ability to create offense off the cycle.

He seems like a different player, even if the stats aren't showing it. Remember this if he blows up in the next 20 games. Forget it if he doesn't.

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No Racine is no problem. [Bill Rapai]

Goaltending is weird. Steve Racine started Monday's game out with some shaky rebound control before righting the ship and turning in one of the best four goals allowed performances you'll see; he has a .925 this year, building on the .920 he put up in the final ten games of his freshman season. And this is nothing compared to Nagelvoort, who's putting up Hunwick numbers: .945, 1.65 GAA.

Quite a difference there… and sad to say probably not a sustainable one. Teams that manage to have those kinds of save percentages over the course of the year are generally Cornell or Ron Mason-era MSU teams that place a heavy emphasis on defense and conservatism; Michigan just scored on a cross-ice goalmouth pass from D to D. Meanwhile, the shaky defense corps is giving up a ton of Grade A opportunities, and eventually those are going to start going in unless Michigan gets it together.

Even if it's not sustainable, that's 23 consecutive games of goaltending ranging from high quality to outstanding. At some point the sample size is about as good as its going to get, and we can put the terrible memories of last year behind. That point is coming up very soon.

Is Josh Blackburn still working with Michigan's goalies as a volunteer? Can someone buy him a smoothie or something?

The rest of the league is Minnesota and poop. I fielded a couple of questions about why I was high on Minnesota instead of Wisconsin and didn't really have an answer other than "Wisconsin always does this," and Wisconsin is doing it again: they're 4-5-1 on the year and just got swept by the Gophers in their first Big Ten series; they got blown out by both Boston schools. And they're probably the third best team in the league. The rest:

  • OSU is 8-6 with seven of their wins against Robert Morris, Niagara, Canisius, and BGSU (a split with UMD is the final win). They played well against Michigan but still got swept; they were swept by Miami in their first series of the year, and Miami's not that good right now.
  • MSU is 5-7 with 4 wins over American International (3-8) and Princeton (3-10); they were recently swept by Michigan Tech.
  • Penn State is 3-7-1 with wins over Army, Robert Morris, and Sacred Heart; they were swept by Air Force and Union.
  • Minnesota leads the nation in goal differential and is rather good at hockey. They've beaten UNH and taken a three point weekend from BC, plus split against ND.

Minnesota's the heavy favorite to win the league, and Michigan should finish second. No one else is likely to make the tournament.

*[I don't have a handle on what the changes did yet. In previous years I've downplayed the Pairwise until late in the season due to its volatility, preferring RPI as a better projection of where you would finish in the PWR at the end of the year than the actual PWR. If that seems like a dumb ranking system to you, well, at least they overhauled it?]

Comments

gwkrlghl

December 5th, 2013 at 12:45 PM ^

I don't know what to make of all the 1-goal and OT games. Instinct would suggest that it'll all come back to earth soon but we've looked pretty good in those one goal games - I think mainly due to some fantastic goalie play. With the Big Ten being pretty meh, we probably won't get exposed too bad (However, I foresee Minnesota bombing us 6-1 once or twice this season enroute to a #1 overall seed which they will use to inexplicably lose to a 3-seed again in the regional final.)

Also, MSU is awful. PSU-MSU is your Velveeta-Auto Owners Insurance Big Ten Hockey Pillow Fight of the Season

chisf

December 5th, 2013 at 12:50 PM ^

They do this every year - last year they got off to a much worse start and ending up winning the WCHA tournament.  They'll get hot the 2nd half of the season.  Plus, they're 16th in the pairwise despite the slow start.

Sac Fly

December 5th, 2013 at 12:55 PM ^

The Lohan injury took away our last right handed defensemen, and now our biggest problem on the blueline is right handed depth.

The Left and Right defensive positions are not interchangeable on a player-to-player basis. Your shooting lanes are different, you're playing the puck on the offensive boards with your backhand, and defensively your stick is being held to the inside. It doesn't sound difficult but a lot of guys can't switch.

The current roster is Downing (L), De Jong (L), Szuma (L), Clare (L), Mac Bennett (L), Serville (R), Chiasson (R)

This is why Andrew Sinelli was moved to defense. It's the same reason why Mac Bennett plays the right side left handed. There's no other defensemen right or left the coaches trust taking that spot.

JeepinBen

December 5th, 2013 at 12:58 PM ^

2 questions that could help answer M's powerplay improvement:

1 - how have they been on PP faceoffs? (i checked and this isn't available info from box scores)

2 - How are they entering the zone? Is it with possession? When they had guys who were great at puck possession (like Hensick) the plan to enter the zone was "give it to Hensick" (side note, great way to do it. Blackhawks do this with Kane often. Wings with Pavel too). How are they trying to establish the PP now?

If these two things are better than they were last year, that could explain the uptick in PP goal %

Sac Fly

December 5th, 2013 at 1:10 PM ^

I don't have the answers to your two questions, but the biggest difference this year is they have changed their formation.

Last year ran the high umbrella with Treais, Trouba and Merrill all up at the blueline. It was a skill power play, with Michigan's bigger forwards away from the net and no playmakers.

This year without a defensemen besides Mac to run it, they're playing low. The play goes through a forward down on the halfboards and they keep everything around the goal crease. Which is why Luke Moffatt is thriving in this system.

AnthonyC

December 5th, 2013 at 12:59 PM ^

I think it was OSU's first goal on monday but their guy got behind Sinelli on the dump-in, that was almost completely his fault.  The flick of the puck over Racine is a really hard shot to stop as chipping a rolling puck is impossible to read.  Either it hits the goalie or it doesn't.  Sinelli lost his man badly.

Other than that I like him I like him and agree that he should be ahead of Serville and Clare at least until they can get a better feel for what they have with him.  As of right now 4 and 6 are known quantities and that "known" isn't very good.

Also I don't think Chaisson's failure to break up that pass is too big of a mistake, its difficult to take away that pass when approaching the passer without putting yourself in a bad position.  Its possible he was slow to react but as far as costing the team a goal its lower on the list.  Someone  could have bothered to cover the shooter?

Reegardless this team is good and they play hard.  The D will hopefully sort itself out as Lohan will come back and Downing and De Jong will get comfortable.

goblueram

December 5th, 2013 at 1:11 PM ^

What an awesome start to the season, even if they are living on the edge.  I'm really hoping Michigan ends up top 2 in B1G play.  I already booked a trip to Minnesota for March 20th weekend, and assuming the 1 and 2 seeds get a bye we would be guaranteed to play that Friday in the semis.  The Wings are playing the Wild Saturday afternoon, then B1G championship in the same rink that night (how?!).  Could be a glorious weekend.  

Alton

December 5th, 2013 at 1:49 PM ^

I'm going to be there as well, and I had no idea about the Red Wings-Wild game that Saturday.  Thanks for the tip!

You're right that #1 & #2 get byes.  Assuming it's Minnesota and Michigan finishing 1-2, Minnesota will certainly get the night slot on Friday, and Michigan will be playing at 2pm Central time.  I noticed that the games are 5 separate tickets (no doubleheaders) as the WCHA used to do--I wonder if they will do that in 2015 in Joe Louis.
 

stephenrjking

December 5th, 2013 at 2:20 PM ^

Better get your tickets now. Minnie fans will snatch up championship game tix if the Gophs are in it.

I'm still figuring out how to swing things with my considerable work obligations that Friday. Obviously my dream scenario is for Minnie to lose Friday, leaving lots of seats available for Saturday's game. Still not sure about any of it, though.

stephenrjking

December 5th, 2013 at 1:25 PM ^

It may be a weird and somewhat frustrating mid-season for Michigan if trends continue. Coming into the season the question was, "Can they put things together and make the tournament?" Now, riding a blazing-hot start against a brutally challenging schedule, we ease out of football season and find ourselves in position to claim a #1 seed. So the question now is, "is this team good enough to win it all?"

And, unfortunately, the answer is, "Not yet." They have serious problems closing games out, mostly for reasons already highlighted. They don't score enough. And conference play will be a grind. All of this would be easy to overlook if the team were still just struggling to earn mathematical at-large bid, but this is Michigan and the bar is high.

It's the sort of team that could slot easily into a 1 or 2 seed, lose in the regionals due to entirely predictable problems that we've seen all year, and leave low-info fans griping about "choking" when in fact they've played over their heads all year.

Or they could put that forecheck together, shore up the defense, and run all the way to April. It will be fun to watch.

enlightenedbum

December 5th, 2013 at 2:05 PM ^

1) I think Nolan De Jong has been pretty reliable.  Not a Merill or Trouba level of reliability, but a solid player.  Seems like Bennett level potential.

2) Totally agree on Hyman.  That dude generates a ton of chances.

3) Everyone on this team is Darren Helm*.  So many chances but no finish.

*Apologes to Helm, who is on a 40 goal pace since he finally came back from injury.

WCHBlog

December 5th, 2013 at 2:47 PM ^

My take on the power play improvement is that without a real QB at the point, or a really slick passing forward, it seems like Michigan has adopted more of a Red Wing-esque "shoot it from anywhere" philosophy. That means a lot of low-percentage, odd angle shots from the half boards and along the goal line, but also creates more rebounds, and forces the defense/goalie to respect the shooter, which opens up more opportunities for cross-ice passes.

I also think Wisconsin ends up making the tournament. They've had a tough schedule so far, but are about to play four straight series against pretty terrible teams, which will help their record immensely. There's a chance they could be 12-5-1 by the time they host Michigan in January.

truferblue22

December 5th, 2013 at 2:56 PM ^

Thank you again, Brian, for doing the hockey posts. I know they don't get as many hits as Football and BB -- but the content is deep and good and I for one, appreciate it. If I'm being totally honest I bought HTHAH for the hockey content much moreso than the BB (which of course I still read). Long story short, thanks for not forgetting about us hockey fans. 

truferblue22

December 5th, 2013 at 2:59 PM ^

Also, if Josh Blackburn IS still the goalie coach -- holy shit. I will happily buy him 3 smoothies (no more though -- 'tis the holiday season, after all). And how funny is it that he's better at teaching goalies to be good than he actually was at goaltending?

Adam Schnepp

December 5th, 2013 at 10:46 PM ^

I like goal differential because of its correlation to winning percentage, and I agree that Michigan isn't as good as thee record indicates. The strange thing is the goals that's have been adding towards that differential haven't necessarily been coming in the periods M has played their best.

When I was tracking Corsi earlier in the season it seemed common for M to outshoot a team for two periods, score in one of those and in the one period they were outshot, and still win anyways. This obviously isn't very sustainable, but it has least laid a good foundation as far as making the tournament.

I was so, so impressed early in the season with how much better the forecheck seemed this year and with the general increase in effort. I've seen more lackadaisical play in the last three games than I had seen at any time the rest of the season, but I can't say it's entirely unexpected. My hope is that they address the forechecking issue and start winning races to loose pucks and board battles, because a good amount of offense can be generated from that and it takes pressure off of an already weakened D.

Team 101

December 6th, 2013 at 11:07 AM ^

We've been getting called from cheap penalties and giving up too many goals on the PK.  If we can tighten that up it will help with the goal differential.