Another weekend, another split, another missed opportunity to stop the wheels from spinning and gain ground on a possible at-large tournament berth. In broad strokes, Michigan played to their 2019 standard in this weekend’s series with Penn State. After beating #6 Notre Dame on the road, Michigan dropped a home game to lowly Merrimack. After eking out a 2-1 win over #4 Ohio State, Michigan dropped the second game, 4-2. Then a 5-1 win over #15 Penn State got Michigan close enough to cracking the Pairwise top 20 that David was considering penning a rooting guide for this weekend’s games only to have those plans shelved after a 5-2 loss in the series finale.
It would stand to reason, then, that there must be two different version of Michigan Jekyll-and-Hyde-ing its way through the season, but the team that won handily Thursday and the one that got blown out Saturday are much more similar than different: periods of excellent shot generation, some stagnation where good teams get shots against M in clusters, and occasional difficulty exiting the defensive zone that’s related to the second point. Every game features a period or two where Michigan dominates, and more often than not it’s via forechecking pressure that leads to offensive opportunities. The one thing that seems to change is attention to detail; when Michigan’s engaged, they’re difficult to stop, and when they’re disengaged they’re likely to serve up supercilious turnovers, the kind that arrive at your table with an extra server, present the food from the left side only, and make a show out of rotating the plate. (If I got that wrong blame Google.)
Michigan got out to a sluggish start on Thursday night, allowing Penn State a Corsi-dominant first period (58% possession, 10 of 25 shot attempts from the House) before flipping the script in the second period (56% possession, seven of 19 shot attempts from the House). Michigan ended the second period up 4-0 and was able to drop guys back defensively and wait out the final 20 minutes. On Saturday, Michigan was four struck posts away from a series sweep—if not for a half dozen preventable turnovers. Michigan’s offense was excellent in the first period, its 30 attempts what was statistically its best period of shot generation of the series, including an impressive 14 from the House area in front of the net. Michigan ended that period down 3-0, though, and went down 4-0 within two minutes of the start of the second period. Drawing iron and seemingly every turnover being converted into a Penn State goal took the life out of Michigan, and they mustered a paltry 36% possession in the second period. A frame where Michigan dominates offensively and ends up down three goals with emotions torpedoed deserves a closer look, as does the manner in which Michigan coughed up the puck.
[Hit THE JUMP to see if there are common threads in Michigan’s post shots and turnovers]
What could have been (and what was)
Everything here starts with Lockwood picking up a loose puck near the boards, which he then recovers and takes up ice. He shows some nice edgework in ducking the defenseman near the blue line, and outskating Berger in the middle of the ice leads to a true 3-on-2. Lockwood gets up on the toes of the defenders; he could probably pass to his right but not his left, but he decides to split the defenders with a long shot on net instead. If he's looking for a rebound then mission accomplished, as the shot hits Peyton Jones and ricochets to his right. Nick Pastujov tracks the shot and is in perfect position to turn the rebound into a one-timer. He creates an excellent scoring chance because he gets the shot off immediately, which catches Jones in the middle of his push right.
Michigan's set up in their 1-3-1 power play here, where Hughes shows why he's a perfect fit to play on the wing. He grabs the attention of three of the four PSU defenders as he skates down the boards, pulling one defender with him and opening up a ton of ice for Nick Pastujov in the middle of the ice. Becker does a great job going from turned and ready for a tip-in to a perfect screen, and Jones never sees Pastujov's shot get behind. It's late in the first period and Michigan is maybe a cumulative inch away from a 2-2 game.
An expiring power play leads to a few seconds of easy puck movement for Michigan, and Nick Boka takes advantage of the space. I think Boka activated more than usual this weekend to positive results; he's really developed into a good second-pair defenseman. He doesn't see anything on his trip behind the net and thus passes to the point, where a really late (or basically non-existent) switch leaves Van Wyhe open for a diagonal cross-ice feed. He misses buy Moyle gathers the loose puck and gets a sharp-angle shot on net from the opposite side that turns into a rebound that sits in the crease. The defense falls asleep completely, leaving Lockwood unchecked. He pounces on the opportunity in front of the net and almost pushes the puck under Jones twice.
And here we have another example of Hughes' edges and puckhandling allowing him to create his own time, space, and shot. Morgan's presence in front gets the defender on Hughes to worry about the pass even though Morgan's really pretty much tied up to begin with, but that's the thing about Hughes: he's so fast and agile that people start reacting, not thinking. Jones has to seal the post, and Hughes holds until he's far enough out after going around the back of the net to attempt to pick a corner. Morgan's just camped out and reaps the benefits of persistence here. Hughes is Hughes, he's going to create a couple of high-quality opportunities every game.
Transitioning back to Friday and Lockwood and Pastujov, they made an impact in that game because they were able to get pucks on net and follow up. When they get pucks deep and then forecheck like this they create opportunities that a line of Lockwood-N. Pastujov-Becker is ideally suited to take advantage of.
That line has a sniper (Pastujov), aggressive playmaker (Lockwood), and deft netfront presence (Becker), and I like that combination more than Michigan's fledgling first line right now. I think Michigan has found something with that line and the fourth line, which has three guys that don't have the most accurate shots but have consistently been tough defensively. Norris was second to Hughes in guys this team could least afford to lose, but I think they've found a line they can lean on a bit in both ends. That both ends bit is in part due to an especially important step forward for Lockwood, who had a stretch of rough games defensively late in the first half; I haven't seen any big defensive miscues from him in a few weeks.
Michigan has had a season-long tendency to look like they're getting everything together defensively, then coming out and letting things slide the next night. It happened again in this series not in the form of unmarked offensive skaters but in a sloppiness with the puck that burned them early and often.
Turnovers are going to happen over the course of a game, but not all turnovers are created equal. Here Boka tries to get the puck out of his defensive zone by throwing it ahead for Warren, but he misses on a pass that's intercepted by Penn State. He stays keyed into what's happening, though, and is able to use some nice defensive stickwork to strip the puck from the PSU skater almost as soon as he gains possession. This isn't a terribly risky play because not only is Boka working to get the puck out of the zone, but it's nearly across the blue line. This is a couple feet away from Penn State being offside, plus Boka keeps his eyes ahead and is able to make a play on the miscue.
Here's the first turnover that led to a goal. It looks to me like Summers decides he's going to move the puck to Lambert to exit the zone and he either put too much on the pass or Lambert didn't get his stick down fast enough or possibly a little bit of both. It hits Lambert's blade and hops, and there's a Penn State player there to pick it up and waltz into the slot. It's a tough situation for Lavigne to be in, but that's not the most difficult shot in the world to stop, either.
This turnover is more difficult to forgive because Hughes sees the defender coming and has Warren available for the outlet and he would even receive the puck on his on hand, but Hughes decides he can outskate the pressure and ends up getting stripped. This is instantly a tremendously dangerous situation because Hughes had three Michigan skaters in front of him and is erased from the play on the steal, so there are a lot of guys back and suddenly a lot resting on Lavigne's shoulders. The pass connects and now Lavigne's staring down a one-on-one breakaway. Lavigne stays on top of the crease to challenge and doesn't move too early, but he can't quite get his leg pad out far enough to keep the puck from getting tucked in around his skate.
This didn't turn into a goal but it's a good example of guys making plays that just don't make sense and put extra stress on a defense and goaltender that are stressed enough as it is. Hughes again misreads the pressure in front of him and leaves a drop pass for Cecconi that's immediately picked off.
Here Hughes again gets defenders to chase him because he's such a smooth skater, but he goes for the cross-ice pass to a player that's being fronted instead of just leaving the puck for Cecconi at the point. Cecconi falls and it turns into a home run the other way, though I suppose it's worth noting that this five-hole goal is fairly frustrating for Lavigne to give up; he eventually got pulled and though I didn't clip them, Strauss Mann made some really impressive and athletic saves with no warm-up time (around 6:30 and 1:30 in the second period, if you're so inclined).
Summers picks up the loose puck and is hounded, first by one skater and then another after he turns inside his own blue line and looks back toward the offensive zone. His thought is to get the puck out of the defensive zone and deep, so he flips it down the boards. The problem is that Michigan is in the midst of a change, and he lobs the puck to an area with no maize jerseys. It's not the most egregious turnover of the night--it took an insanely nice stretch pass and Boka's skate to turn into a goal--but it does show room for improvement as far as awareness is concerned.
So Hughes exploded in a million different directions in this game, as he was almost solely responsible for half of Michigan's offensive output and also responsible for slightly more than half of Penn State's offensive output. I don't know if he was just off or wasn't fully engaged Saturday night, but this is another almost inexplicable pass. Hughes usually takes chances and they don't typically end up resulting in this many pucks behind his goaltender, and even then this isn't really gambling like the cross-ice pass above, it's just weird. There's a skater in front of him; make the short pass and live to skate the opposition into a pretzel.
We knew coming into this season that Michigan was going to have to be somewhere between very good and great defensively if they were going to make the tournament. The offensive firepower wasn't there from the start, and now they're without their best offensive player the rest of the season. Turnovers happen, sure, but the turnovers on Saturday were preventable. Michigan can ill afford to make things more difficult for themselves, and turnovers that can be corrected with a little more patience or eyes up? That turns fractures into clean breaks. Lavigne usually stops what he can see, but he's not the first guy you're going to put in net to stop breakaways. Michigan needs to do what it can to stop that from happening; even with a solid second line forming and a fourth line that brings energy, they won't outscore their mistakes.