Monday, November 26, 2007

Weekend Recap: College Hockey Showcase Champions

I'm just getting back into the swing after attending that debacle of a football game, heading to Kentucky for Thanksgiving, and then coming home to witness our hockey team finally getting one against the Evil Empire. I've got a lot to catch up on, including an unexpected development on Signing Day, but first comes a recap of a weekend sweep against a couple of our traditional WCHA foes.

Saturday night's victory was about as big as a regular season, non-conference win can possibly be. We finally beat the friggin Gophers. And not just beat them, opened a can on them. That was a biggie because it keeps the momentum going, and it also gets the monkey off this team's back by finally beating a team that has absolutely owned them for the better part of the last decade. It's also good for the sanity of yours truly. I almost broke my foot from kicking a wall on the concourse the last time we lost to the Gophers at Yost. I'm not sure how I would've reacted to a 12-2 record with both losses coming against Minnesota.

Thankfully it was never really in doubt. It was obvious that the team circled this game after losing to the Gophers in Saint Paul, when we outplayed them for a good portion of the game. They wanted this one and it showed. Thanks guys!

By and large, this was an exhibition of how well our captains can play. Chad Kolarik got things going with a very strange goal when Kolarik sprung Kevin Porter, Porter was poke-checked and the puck went right back on to Chad's stick and Frazee couldn't get himself set to make the save. Porter found Kolarik again with a sweet pass as the late man on a rush and Kolarik lasered a shot past Frazee for a 2-0 lead.

The next goal was all Kevin Porter. He knocked the puck away at our blueline and then busted his ass to get in on the forecheck when Frazee came out to play the puck. When the Gophers' netminder fanned on a pass, Porter lifted his stick, stole the puck, and was able to quickly wrap it around and put it in the empty net. I was really hoping that Frazee would react by firing his mask in to the glass as he did when Michigan scored late to beat the NTDP when he was at USA, but it sadly wasn't to be. Add in another Porter goal on a gorgeous pass from Kolarik, a great feed from Aaron Palushaj to Ben Winnett, and a few timely stops from Billy Sauer and it was Michigan's biggest win over Minnesota since 1993, and their first at home since 1997.

The newly remodeled has video highlights which are awesome. Watch the Minnesota highlights, enjoy the fastest version of Hail to the Victors you'll ever see, and pay attention to Red in the background because it's pretty funny. Here are the Wisconsin highlights as well. Also, I know there are some readers who haven't gotten to see much of our team this year, but if you go back through the archive you'll find that they've added video highlights for a good number of the games this season and they're well-worth watching.

-4 guys that deserve all the credit in the world for their play this year: Kevin Porter, who has modeled this team in his image; Chad Kolarik, who has been a great leader as well as a great scorer; Billy Sauer, who would likely be in line for Most Improved Player if the NCAA gave out such an award; and Mark Mitera--the captain I didn't mention above--who is consistently in position, blocking shots, and making great outlet passes (and he does it despite not having the luxury of playing with the same defense partner every night).

-Blake Wheeler is an absolute monster. He had the puck, Porter got up a little steam and tried to hit him in the open ice, and Wheeler never broke stride as Porter bounced off him. That guy has NHL written all over him (I guess he should, being a top-5 pick and all), but I thought we did a pretty nice job against him.

-Despite 27 shots against, I thought the defense was pretty solid. You're going to give up some scoring chances when you play a team as talented as the Gophers but I thought they were pretty solid for the most part. Sauer had to make a few saves, but again, you're going to see that any time you play a good offensive team. I thought Minnesota had many more quality scoring chances the last time these teams met. Barriball did nothing apart from one chance coming out of the corner (BTW Billy, good job staying with him!), Wheeler was held in check for the most part, and we held them to 5 SOG on 5 power play attempts (and no goals). The one goal they did score was a weak shot that hit off Kevin Quick's skate and just eluded Sauer.

-Steve Kampfer is playing like a guy who deserved to be a mid-round NHL draft pick. I was skeptical, but he's really been good this season and the offensive part of his game is starting to reveal itself. He made a great outlet pass on Michigan's first goal of the night.

-Chad Langlais saved a goal in the first period, getting over to tie up a man in front of the net just as the pass was getting there. He scares me at times in our own end, but he's been a really, really great pickup. He had a rough shift in the third period, blocking a shot off his knee and then getting boarded by two Gopher players who were both penalized.

-That might have been the best game I've ever seen Steve McInchak officiate. The call on Flynn, which put us on the power play where we tallied our 4th goal, was really impressive. Flynn tried to slew-foot Naurato on two occasions at the drop of the puck and then subtley (is that a word?) rode him into the boards when Naurato tried to get to the outside of him. That happened by the near boards around the offensive blueline. McInchak was positioned on the goal line at the far side of the ice and there were four players between him and Flynn. I have no idea how he saw it, but it was absolutely a penalty and I was shocked he called it. It made it even better that they made Flynn pay because he was gooning it up in the third period.

-Ben Gordon played a pretty good game for Minnesota, but getting third star was a little much, especially since his goal was a total fluke. Sauer should've been #3.

-He got victimized on a bad, bad pinch on Wisconsin's second goal Friday night, but Vaughan also played a real good game Saturday. He's been a pleasant surprise.

-Aaron Palushaj is an assist machine. That kid is fantastic at finding guys cross-crease. He did it twice over the weekend. He makes a pretty, pretty pass. I love our top power play unit. We get our whole top line out there (Porter on the point) along with two great passers in Palushaj and Langlais. Amazing that a unit with three freshmen can be that effective.

For the Wisconsin game, I can only go by the box score and the video highlights but that's a game that we could've put up 8 or 9 goals very easily. Connelly made some dynamite stops and we hit at least a couple of bars. If you watch the highlights, pay attention to the number of stellar outlet passes by our defensemen and how often they spring guys on breakaways/odd-man rushes. I said this a couple of weeks ago: I don't remember the last time our defensemen were so able to hit on those homerun passes. It's really impressive. Also, check out that save Sauer makes at 2:40. Wow. That's an athletic play right there.

All of last year, Sauer gave up two or less goals 18 times and 1 goal or less nine times. This year, through 14 games (roughly a third of a season), he's given up two or less ten times and 1 or less on four occasions. He also just won CCHA Goalie of the Week for the third straight time.

It's still really early and they're yet to face the likes of Michigan State or Miami, but this team has the look of a group that could contend for a national championship. They're scoring a ton of goals, playing good defense, getting very solid goaltending, doing well on special teams, and they're doing most, if not all, of the little things right. The passing is crisp, they're playing smart hockey for the most part, apart from Saturday's game they've done pretty darn well in the faceoff circle, and quite frankly, you'd never know that Michigan is dressing as many freshmen as they are. But what I love the most is the heart. This team goes balls to the wall every shift, no matter if they're playing Minnesota or NMU. And the coaches and captains deserve a lot of credit for that.

Four more games--all of which we should win--until the GLI. And it would sure be nice to win one of those mofos. It's going to be interesting to see how many players we end up losing. I was commenting Saturday night that Sauer might even be a candidate with his play so far this year (Easy to forget that he's still young enough to play). It was discussed at length today on the Yost Post, and those who know better than I don't think it'll happen. But it's amazing that it even needed to be discussed!

I've been drawing parallels between this team and the Green Bay Packers all season. At this point I'm not sure which start I'm more shocked by. But hopefully the trend continues, and this monkey-killing victory over Minnesota is a sign of things to come against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday.

Still to come this week: An update on the players who have signed LOIs for next year, the media roundup, 10 Things to Know about the Ohio State Buckeyes and maybe a few comments about the rest of the sports world.


colin said...

Between this, Brian and Chris WCH blog, I feel like I got a good feel for the weekend. And damn it feels good to beat the Gophers. Sick of losing to them. Just sick. I don't think I've ever seen us play them live, but every time I go home for thanksgiving we lose big on fox sports and it's the one thing about the whole extended weekend that sucks.


colin said...

er, "between this, Brian, and Chris' WCH blog..."