Heading into the last weekend of the regular season, here are my 5 reasons to panic about the Michigan hockey team, and the 5 reasons you shouldn't panic about the rest of the year.
We'll get the bad out of the way first.
5 Reasons You Should Panic:
1) They still don't know how to play team defense: 30+ games into the year, don't you just get the feeling that if they don't know how to not give up odd-man rushes by now, they're never going to learn? Some of it has been bad pinches, some of it has been the forwards being more Paul Kariya than Kris Draper, but we've all been saying it for weeks...it needs to change. They make progress and then the next weekend it's back to the same old routine. In our own zone, I honestly think we do a great job. In transition though? It's ugly.
2) The goaltending has been--and probably will continue to be--iffy: This goes back to Alvaro saying "Adios" during the summer. Yes, I thought we'd be better off without him if it was going to be more of the Apathetic Al that we saw last season (and I'm not convinced it'd be any different with him in net right now). Enter Billy Sauer, who frankly just wasn't ready to be a full-time starting goaltender in college. He split time in the USHL last year, and what? 3 years ago he was playing JV hockey in New York? He could have really used a full year as a USHL starter. It's hard to say anything bad about Noah Ruden because, let's face it, he's not on par with some of the goalies we've had in the past, nor should anyone expect him to be. He's a walkon that inherited the starting role and he's done a better-than-passable job. You just have to come into the game knowing he's probably giving up 1 real weak one, bare minimum. But better-than-passable doesn't mean I've got confidence we can go to the NCAA title with him. If it was only a one-game tournament, sure. He's had some absolutely excellent games this year. But I don't know that he can put together 4 great games in a row. And that's what it would take.
3) Consistency: I just touched on it talking about Noah Ruden. This team has a major problem with stringing quality efforts together (and in a lot of cases, even bringing a quality effort for 60 minutes). At the top of their game, they're as good as anyone. The downer to that is we've only see that kind of performance for maybe 10 minutes at a time any given weekend. This team hasn't strung together back-to-back wins in a weekend since December 9th and 10th. Since then, they've only one back-to-back games twice. It's hard to believe they're going to run off four straight W's to win a title when they can't sweep a weekend series from a mediocre CCHA team.
4) Poor Performances on the Road: Ignoring the fact that they've dropped 5 games at Yost Ice Arena this season (who saw that coming??), this team has been worse when they've gotten away from the friendly confines. They're 6-7-3 in games not played at Yost. That doesn't bode well for a long tournament run when you take into account that the closest regional is 6 hours away and we potentially could end up playing Wisconsin in Green Bay, NoDak at Achtung Arena, or either of the Boston schools in Massachusetts.
5) Our Two "Game-Changing" Forwards Need to Get It Going: TJ Hensick and Andrew Cogliano are the two biggest X-Factors for us up front going into the playoffs. You know you're going to get a great effort out of "The Line" of Ebbett, Kal, and Kolarik. But the two forwards that can change the game the quickest as Hensick and Cogs. TJ, despite having points in 7 of his last 9 (and multiple points in 5 of those games) just looks like he's going at half-speed a lot of the time. There was a buzz for a little while that he wasn't 100% and that could have played a factor. But we've all seen just how good he can be (like last year when he was in the running for the Hobey) and if this team is going to make any kind of run toward a title, he needs to play at that kind of elite level.
Cogliano has gone 6 games without a point, and has only tallied points in 3 of his 15 games since coming back from World Juniors. Has he hit the freshman wall? I'm not sure. That would be hard to believe since St. Mike's played probably twice as many games last year on their way to a long run into the Canadian Junior A Tournament. Scorers go through slumps, and if he can get back to his earlier form (Points in 8 of 9 games in October and November) this team will be much better off.
Enough with the negatives.
5 Reasons You Shouldn't Panic:
1) At Some Point, the Power Play Has to Get Going. Doesn't it?: Since the GLI, the Wolverines are on an incredibly bad streak of going something like 9 for 97 on the Power Play. Despite that, they're still ranked 13th in the country with the man advantage. At some point they have to find something that works. On the plus side, they have had more success scoring even strength! If the power play can get even close to how it was at the start of the year, we're going to be ok offensively.
2) The Light Has Gone On For Some Guys: Particularly Tim Cook, Jason Dest, Tim Miller, and dare I say....Tyler Swystun? Cook and Dest were brutal at the start of the year, but since Cook scored his goal, they've been probably our two best defensemen in their own end (and Cook has even scored points in back-to-back games!). Tim Miller has been a joy to watch this year. He's just getting better and better, and in the last weekend at Yost, Swsytun showed glimpses of the ability we all heard he had. Guys like Cook, Dest, and Miller aren't going to win us a national championship, but at the same time, we can't win it without them playing well.
3) The Vets Are Leading By Example: Putting Ebbett, Kolarik, and Kaleniecki together was a stroke of genius. That line has been fabulous since they were first put together. Ebbett and Kal have done an outstanding job of leading by example out there, whether it be on the PK and forechecking like madmen, or scoring a big goal when we need one (Start of the 3rd period vs. OSU). Ebbett has 13 points in his last 9 games and has scored at least one point in 8 of them. Kolarik has points in 11 of 16 (with multiple points in 8 of them) and just ended a 4 game drought with 3 in the tie at Omaha. Kal has points in 7 of 10 since he came back from his injury.
4) The Talent is There: I've said it the whole time we've been in this slump....if the light ever goes on for them, look out! There's so much talent on this team. They can play with/beat anyone in the country, they just have to execute and do it. You look at guys that can without question step their game up a notch or two and you've got Hensick, Cogliano, Porter, Johnson, Hunwick, and I guess even Kolarik. Those are some big-time names, and if most of them can elevate their game, they can play with anyone.
5) Even Though They've Been Subpar, They've Been in Almost Every Game: As bad as Michigan has been, and as many games as you can say they've been outplayed, they haven't been that far off. Look at the games we've lost (going backwards): 1 goal, 1 goal in OT, 2 goals with an empty-netter, 3 at BGSU when we were awful, 2, 2, 5 vs. CC which doesn't count, 1, 2, 1, 3, 2. So you've only got 3 games the entire year where we were completely out-classed and had no shot to win (actually make it 4 because that 2-0 game against Sparty was just a complete abortion). But the point is, we've been playing like hell, and we haven't been getting killed. That bodes well for us if the lightbulb ever goes on.
And a bonus reason to feel positive:
6) The NCAA is Wide Open This Year: There's just no dominant team. Wisconsin had that look for most of the year until Elliot got hurt, but they struggled in his absence. But I have to say that they just didn't blow me away when I saw them at Yost. They kind of reminded me of those Michigan State Ryan Miller teams that were great in the regular season put didn't do much in the tournament. Miami has had an excellent year, but do I think that Michigan can't beat them on a neutral sheet? No way! We've beaten BC, granted it was their first game of the year. If you're naming the favorite coming into the tournament, who do you even pick? It's wide open, and if Red can get them to start playing, there's no reason they can't take a run at this thing. I keep coming back to this: 2 years ago, Denver was 5th in the WCHA. They lost in the first round of their conference tournament. They won the whole damn thing. And remember the Terrier Curse: Michigan loses when they are favored, they win in the years they're not expected to do anything.
Get it going boys, and let's take a shot at it! Go Blue!