Tuesday’s loss to Notre Dame wasn’t the final nail in the coffin for Michigan’s tournament chances, but things aren’t super great when a college hockey site’s models have to be consulted to make sure the pre-comma clause isn’t mathematically impossible. Conference tournament games are treated like regular season games as far as Pairwise is concerned, and while that leaves a little room for Michigan to bolster its resume, we can get an idea how much that will matter (read: do they need to win the tournament outright) thanks to the excellent charts at College Hockey Ranked. Michigan has four remaining regular-season contests, and the most likely outcome (28.0%) derived from four straight wins is the #19 Pairwise spot. The top 16 teams get into the tournament; Michigan has a 3.6% chance of finishing the regular season #16, 0.7% chance of finishing #15, and 0.1% chance of finishing #14. In other words, it’s exceeding unlikely they’ll play their way into a position to be heartbroken by some other team that’s out of it winning their conference tournament and stealing a bid (and even that assumes Michigan wins some but not all of their conference tournament games.)
With just six points separating the teams in second (Michigan) and sixth (Michigan State) place in the conference standings and four conference games left to play, projecting Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament opponent is an exercise in futility. We do have four games from earlier this season that could help us in analyzing how Michigan might be able to go about sweeping Ohio State and Wisconsin, their next two opponents, so we’ll turn to those for insight. Sweeping two opponents consecutively will be a big task for a team that went over three months between sweeps, but we can look at a few smaller components of quality play that make it possible. It’s not entirely unlike when my ten-month-old is in his high chair and flings himself forward to grab something I definitely didn’t think he could reach on the table and I’m like, hey, that would have been fine if I ripped it into pieces but as it stands you shoving it into your mouth whole just makes me look like a shitty dad. I mean, it’s not entirely like that but it’s not entirely unlike that, either.
[Hit THE JUMP for GIFs and such]
The first age-appropriate bit we’ll rip off relates to the more difficult to palate of the two remaining series. Michigan squares off with Ohio State at home in eight days, with the extra time between games due to weird Tuesday night one-off games like this week’s loss to Notre Dame. Ohio State is currently ranked #3 in Pairwise, but Michigan managed to split a close series in Columbus the first time these teams met. The thing that immediately stands out when reviewing that series is that you have to hope Hayden Lavigne can shake off getting pulled in his most recent start, as he was one of the primary reasons Michigan was in both games last month. He started and played well in last Friday’s game against Michigan State, allowing maybe one goal that he should have had back of the three that went in. Strauss Mann got the start against MSU Saturday in an effort to shake Michigan out of its win-Friday-lose-Saturday funk, not because of how Lavigne played Friday. He played well in the face of some big defensive miscues.
And some big offensive miscues, too.
That may be the opposing offense and it may have absolutely nothing to do with the next two series, true, but I’ll be damned if that happens in a Michigan game and I don’t get to post it. Sorry, Jeremy.
Anyway, Lavigne started the game in South Bend Tuesday night and was pulled after allowing four goals in 40 minutes; one was a short-handed breakaway that was almost the mirror image of a goal Michigan got back later in the game, so meh. The power-play goal was a bit concerning, as it was a long shot that I thought Lavigne was able to see. Things got worse in the last quarter of the second period, as Lavigne allowed a goal five-hole on a shot from just across the blue line. Then Notre Dame was able to score on a shot fairly similar to one that went in for Michigan State last weekend.
I asked MGoHockeycast co-host and goaltender Anthony Ciatti about the two goals and he thought the one against State was Lavigne’s angle being off and the one against Notre Dame was on the defense.
Mann allowed a goal on a late power play Tuesday and was otherwise fine. I expect that Lavigne will get at least the Friday start against Ohio State based on how he fared against them last time; I doubt one weak goal erases what he’s done the back half of the season, but Mann can’t be ruled out because he’s made similarly excellent saves against similarly busted coverages, and he’s done so with little to no warm-up time. The defense is what it is at this point: two or three big breakdowns each game that force the goaltender to make incredible stops. I'm not sure which goaltender you want in net when those breakdowns happen; Mann has been great against them and is athletic enough to recover if he starts off his angle, but the GIFs in this Extra Point post from the last time Michigan and Ohio State played show Lavigne making the same kinds of saves--with one notable exception. At this point, I guess we’re talkin’ bout practice and who the staff feels most comfortable with. It’s an excellent time for Michigan to have a bye week and get an opportunity to take stock of where each unit is and what needs to happen to string together a [fire emoji] stretch run.
The other guy who had a great series against Ohio State the last time around is the one I see as the biggest key to Michigan’s fate: Quinn Hughes. There are no secrets with Hughes. He’s been scouted to the ends of the earth, and if you’re reading this I assume you’ve seen what he can do at even strength with his ability to start—and, in some cases, be—the rush. That came into play against Ohio State 5v5 as well as on the power play, and Hughes’ playmaking with the man advantage is what could be the key to the Wisconsin series.
Wisconsin took four penalties the first time the teams played and seven (!) in the rubber match. Michigan went 0-for-11 despite posting 12 shot attempts Friday and 25 Saturday. Wisconsin is ranked 59th out of 60 teams in penalty kill percentage at a cool 73.6. (Related aside: Ohio State’s 82.2% places their PK t-27th. Not great and they took three penalties in each of their two games against Michigan, but not the same blood-in-the-water type stuff Wisconsin’s facing.) I thought the second-unit power play did a nice job quickly swinging the puck around the ice and forcing the defense to move against Michigan State. The first-unit power play hasn’t been moving the puck with speed in the same way because it’s far more tailored to putting the puck on Hughes’ stick and allowing him to draw attention.
One thing that seems to separate Hughes from forwards that walk down the wall is that defenses aren’t patient with him. When he starts moving, so do they. Sometimes that movement isn't just a few strides, it's a tearful goodbye with mom and dad and a move across state lines.
Not the same amount of skating involved here but he pulls a guy up and grabs a second guy’s eyes, and he lets the puck go when he sees that DeRidder is adequately screened. Worst-case scenario is the puck in a swarm of bodies, and with Michigan routinely camping two guys out near the crease it's a shot intended to generate a second chance.
There are obvious issues putting so much on a power play that has collectively gone 1-for-22 over their last five games, and the first-unit power play can bog down at times. Hughes is an unconventional player and allowing him free reign to create on the wing up a man is somewhat unconventional as well, but it speaks to how the coaching staff allows their players to play to their strengths. Anthony mentioned in a recent conversation that he was impressed with how the staff is able to get the most out of each line in allowing each player to do what he does best within an overarching structure that places a premium on shot generation. The power play needs Hughes to be that shot generator, and the above clips show that it’s not a big reach to ask him to do exactly that.