Sunday, March 31, 2013

Merrill Goes Pro, Trouba Leaning Toward Staying?

As expected, Jon Merrill has decided to forego his senior season and sign with the New Jersey Devils. He signed a 3-year entry-level deal with them, but will play the rest of the season in Albany on an amateur tryout, so the remainder of this year will not count against the three years on the deal.

Merrill had 2-9--11 in 21 games as a junior. He missed large chunks of the two previous seasons with a suspension last year and then a neck injury this season, but proved to be a high-end player when he was in the lineup and was Mitch McGary-esque with his breakout passes. 

In his only full season he was named to the All-CCHA Second Team, the all freshman team, and was a finalist for CCHA Rookie of the Year, best offensive defenseman, and best defensive defenseman. He was also the #1 star of The Big Chill at the Big House. 

He closes his Michigan career with 11-36--47 in 82 games with a +25 rating. He took just 21 penalties for 45 minutes. Merrill's AHL career has gotten off to a good start with 3 assists and a +3 rating in his first two games for Albany. He has been reunited with Brandon Burlon, who has 1-16--17 in 48 games.

In other news, Adam Wodon from CollegeHockeyNews tweeted that he is hearing from Michigan people that Trouba is "leaning towards staying at Michigan". No analysis needed on that one. Clearly it would be huge for the Wolverines if JMFT came back for another year. 

MGoBlue has a list of the Wolverines currently in the NHL and their stats. From a fantasy hockey perspective there's no one absolutely killing it, though Pacioretty (9-17--26), Cogliano (8-10--18, +15), Cammalleri (11-14--25), and Mike Brown (107 PIMs) are all having pretty solid seasons. There have been 18 former Wolverines in the NHL this year, tied for second with BC behind Wisconsin's 19. (Jake Dowell has been recalled, but hasn't skated for the Wild yet. He'd be #20.) 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

End of the Season, End of The Streak

A total repeat of 2010 wasn't to be. After throttling Miami 6-2 on Saturday, the Wolverines fell 3-1 to the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in the final CCHA Championship. The loss ends Michigan's season, and also ends the NCAA-record 22-year tournament streak.

It's certainly a disappointing finish to the season, but at least there were some things to cheer about in the end. The first 30 games were a complete debacle and, as suspected, there were some problems in the locker room--Moffie admitted it--that took some time (and perhaps an injury/suspension) to resolve. Eventually everyone got on board and they showed what kind of team they could be. When they were 10-18-2 there were a couple of directions that the season could have gone: They could have completely mailed it in and embarrassed themselves in the process or they could have fought to salvage things. They picked the latter. I totally get if people don't think that group deserves praise for deciding to play with ten games left in the season, but I do think they deserve credit for digging deep and righting the ship. 

It's tough for me to comment too much on something like this because I don't have a lot of insight into the dynamics of a locker room, especially one containing college kids and all the things that go along with being college kids. I don't have that experience with how things can go South and how difficult it can be to get things headed back in the right direction. 

I don't think it's necessarily a coincidence that it happened in a year when Michigan had to replace all four of their captains--I certainly don't mean that as a knock against the guys who wore letters this year. I mean it in the sense that none of them had worn letters previously and I have no doubt that it takes time to grow into that role. Things went really poorly right from the outset (injuries, losses, potentially lack of confidence in the goalies causing a lack of effort, lack of confidence from the goalies, and at least one person splitting the team apart) and it's easy to see how it could potentially just start snowballing. Does that happen if a Hagelin/Kolarik/Hunwick/Porter is there? It's of course speculation, but I suspect not. In the end, the captains got the ears of the team and they got the best effort and best performance out of the guys at the time of the season when you need that. It took 30 games, and it completely removed their margin for error, but in the end they got to playing like a Michigan team should play and they darn near pulled off a miracle run to the Tournament.

Of course, the problem with losing your margin for error is that when you keep playing good teams you have to be perfect and Sunday the Wolverines weren't. It took some great play out of Steve Racine for the Wolverines to not be down 2 or 3 goals in the first period, let alone to come out of the first period leading by a goal. They held on as long as they could--Brian mentioned the two games that jumped right to my mind as I was watching (The North Dakota semifinal game and the loss to BC in the regional in 04)--but the Irish eventually cracked Michigan. All it took was Trouba and Bennett getting crossed up for just a second and Notre Dame had a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

After being extremely aggressive for most of the game--Notre Dame beat Michigan to a lot of pucks, forechecked hard, were great in transition and were stellar cycling in the offensive zone--the Irish took their foot off the gas in the third up by a goal and it nearly bit them. Justin Selman was robbed trying to tip in a great pass from Hyman and Moffie had one last gasp for the Wolverines, but Summerhays was up to the task.

The streak had to end sometime. I'm not going to look back on this team in anger for not making the tournament. Quite frankly, we're not entitled as fans to have our team make the tournament every season. We were spoiled that they made it as many years as they did. I remember several seasons sweating it out down the stretch as Michigan sat firmly on the bubble--hell, it was just 3 years ago that they needed a miracle run slightly better than this one to get in, and we all LOVED that team.

I can't get too worked up about finally missing out on the Big Dance because they've actually been dodging that bullet for a while. It's a disappointment that the streak ends with a team that was clearly capable of so much more, but they're not the first talented team to miss the tournament and they won't be the last. I get that people are more frustrated since they did show what they were capable of toward the end of the season, but I'd look back on this team in a much worse light if they just folded than I will with them going down swinging and proving that they were more than just a team that wasn't very good. It's a lesson to all of us that you can't project a team's success merely on talent. Leadership, chemistry, etc. mean a lot more than people sometimes think they will.

The key is for the future leaders of this team--Bennett, DeBlois, Copp, etc--to take the lessons learned from this season and make sure that the issues don't reoccur. If they come back as a united team next year, then maybe losing the tournament streak isn't in vain.

I've read a LOT of opinions about the end of the season and I've found myself saying "Oh, good point" quite a bit, even about completely opposing viewpoints. I get it if people want to say "They didn't play like they gave a crap for 30 games, why are we praising them for doing it for the last ten?" but I also get it (and am on board with) the people who appreciate that the light bulb finally went on and the lessons were finally learned. In the end, it was too little, too late.

Other viewpoints: MGoBlog, Section 25, Hoover Street Rag, The Wolverine.

So, what's next? Attention, as it always does during the offseason, turns to who will be back next year? Michigan loses Treais, Kevin Lynch, Sparks, Rohrkemper, and Moffie to graduation. Kevin Clare may or may not return from his injury/suspension. Jon Merrill and Jacob Trouba could both step into an NHL lineup before the end of the season if they wanted to. From the sounds of it, Merrill is almost certainly leaving, but Trouba feels there's some unfinished business at Michigan. Sports betting sites don't lay odds on that kind of thing, but Spath put it at 60-40 that he returns, which would be HUGE.

Alex Guptill had a very nice season in the end, but apparently clashed with the coaches a little bit (and was left home for a series at Ferris). PDG and Nieves could also be lesser threats to leave. Then you wonder about the incoming freshmen, as it's a very talented group. I'd say Evan Allen is the biggest threat to not make it to campus, as he's a Windsor pick and you know how that goes. He mentioned back in November that he was keeping his options open with regard to the OHL. For what it's worth, he just tweeted that he's wearing #15 at Michigan next season. (Downing says that he will be wearing #5.)

One who you can scratch off the list? Mac Bennett. He's said he will be back next season.

There have been rumblings that Michigan was looking to bring in a goalie next year. Has Racine's play down the stretch changed anyone's mind? He certainly looked like a goalie that can play at a high level. A month off to get his head straight really helped him. Would an offseason do the same for Jared Rutledge? Will he be back? There are a lot of questions to be answered this offseason.

Next season brings the Wolverines to the long-awaited Big Ten Hockey Conference. 6 teams means only 20 conference games, which leaves a lot of room to play teams from around the country. There have been lots of reports on Twitter today about future games. Apparently during Red's press conference (or maybe during his radio show?) he mentioned we'll be playing UNH (away), UNO (away), Boston University, Michigan Tech at home for a series, Boston College, and RIT (away). What does all that mean? It means the team better be friggin' ready to go from the get-go next season, because there's a damn good chance they'll be playing the toughest schedule in America. Also, the 20 game non-conference schedule is going to be awesome. How do you like the idea of playing teams like that ever year?

In other news, Lindsay Sparks has signed with the Fort Wayne Komets of the ECHL and Kevin Lynch is expected to join Columbus's AHL affiliate. Also, commit Brendan Warren will play for the NTDP next season.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Michigan Takes on Miami at the Joe

Round three of the CCHA Tournament pits the Wolverines against the #1-seeded Miami RedHawks. Miami edged out Notre Dame for the CCHA crown and currently sits tied for 3rd in the Pairwise. They come into this weekend 24-10-5 on the season but 10-7-2 away from home. They punched their ticket for the Joe by beating FYS in three games (0-3, 4-1, 4-1).

Miami is a team that won't overwhelm you offensively, but they do have some talent up front. They have both the CCHA MVP (Austin Czarnik--man, I guess we got the wrong one, eh?) and the CCHA Rookie of the Year (Riley Barber) playing forward for them. Barber led the team in scoring and was the top-scoring freshman in the nation with a 15-23--38 line. Czarnik has 14-22--36, though four of his goals were empty-netters (4 also came short-handed). Freshman defenseman Matthew Caito has chipped in with 5-15--20 on the season.

Overall, though, they rank just 38th nationally in offense at 2.54 goals per game. Like Western Michigan, however, they earn their wins on the defensive end. After a shaky week by Quinnipiac, the RedHawks now rank #1 nationally in team defense at 1.62 goals per game. Ryan McKay has taken the reigns in net after splitting time most of the year. He's made the last six starts. On the season he has an unbelievable 1.20 goals against average and .954 save percentage (tops in the nation in both categories).

He has only given up more than two goals on one occasion this season, that in a 3-3 tie against NMU back in January. He has lost 3 of his last seven starts, however. The fact that he's 12-5-2 despite almost never giving up more than 2 goals means that Miami's offense is prone to letting them down. They've been shut out on seven occasions this year, including three by a 1-0 final. They have scored 4+ in four of their last seven, however, keeping in mind that those were against LSSU, OSU, and FYS.

The teams split a pair of games at Yost during the first weekend of CCHA play. Michigan won 4-2 and then lost 4-3 the next night, behind three goals in a 2:41 span. McKay only saw 5 minutes of action, however. That was also so long ago and things have changed so much that I don't think you can take a whole lot from those games. Racine did play well between the pipes during the Friday night game. The goals he allowed were of the fluky variety.

Their PP is right about where you'd expect (36th). They're sixth on the PK at 88.2%, but they have scored 8 short-handed goals on the year (4 by Czarnik), which is second to only Bobby Mo's 9.

Game time is at 4:35 pm and the game will air on FSN Detroit +. If the Wolverines win, they'll take on the winner of Notre Dame/Ohio State with a tournament berth on the line.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Back to the Joe! Michigan Sweeps WMU

The Wolverines moved one step closer to keeping their NCAA streak alive this past weekend. The went into Kalamazoo, where the Broncos had lost only twice all season, and downed WMU by 4-3 and 5-1 scores.

It was the first time all season that WMU had given up 4+ goals in back-to-back games, just the second time  all season they had given up 3+ goals in back-to-back games, and, incredibly, just the second time since November they had given up even two-or-more in consecutive games.

They advanced to the CCHA semifinals thanks to a 100% team effort. Steve Racine provided great goaltending (even in giving up 3 on Friday night, he couldn't really be faulted for any of the goals). Outside of a couple of blips on Friday the defense was outstanding. The offense lit up one of the nation's best in Frank Slubowski, chasing him on Saturday. The power play scored in both games and was 2-for-7 on the weekend. The PK was a perfect 9-for-9. It doesn't get a whole lot more well-rounded than that.

Michigan was able to turn Friday night's tilt into an up-and-down the ice kind of game, which is the style they traditionally have liked to play. PDG gave the Wolverines a 1-0 lead on a nifty pass from Kevin Lynch. Lynch carried the puck in deep and threaded the needle between two Broncos to give PDG a great opportunity and he buried it.

Justin Selman, who may have played the best hockey of his Michigan career this weekend, added a goal before intermission. Hyman made a nifty play to get the puck to Selman in traffic in the Michigan zone and Selman rushed it up ice. With Hyman driving the net, Selman got off a great shot that Slubowski stopped, but he left a juicy rebound. Selman jumped on it and was able to tuck it into the net.

Western didn't roll over, though. Two goals in just over a minute tied the game back up and both were the result of Michigan turnovers. After Serville and DeBlois failed to get the puck out of the zone, Szuma had to step up on Walters. That left Chase Balisy all alone in front of the net, as Copp had broken out of the zone when it looked like Michigan would clear. That's not the guy you want to give a lot of room to, and he made Michigan pay.

Moffatt then couldn't handle the puck in the neutral zone and WMU came back the other way. Hargrove wristed one past Racine on a two-on-one to even the game.

Michigan would respond three minutes later on an NHL-type play by Jacob Trouba. He picked up the puck on Michigan's side of center ice, beat one guy to gain the zone and then wound up for a slapshot. He froze the defenseman and Slubowski with the threat of a bomb, pulled it down, and lasered a wrist shot past both of them before they could move. It really isn't fair for a kid to have that kind of a slapshot only to have that kind of release and speed on a wrister as well.

Western came right back again, however. They got the puck back to Morrison at the point who flipped a shot on cage through a heavy screen that was deflected a couple of times on the way through. There was absolutely no chance for Racine to stop that one.

With Michigan on the power play in the third period, Trouba got the game-winner. He brought the puck from the left point over into the middle of the ice. Western Michigan got crossed up with who was supposed to be covering him and Trouba made them pay by bombing a shot through Slubowski. In the screen shot below, the WMU player between the top of the circles had shaded to the middle of the ice. The player nearest the blueline stopped moving to his left and was trying to pass Trouba off. You can see him pointing. That moment was all it took as Trouba was able to bring the puck to the top of the circle before uncorking one.

You can see the confidence that Red Berenson has in his young players, because which forwards were out there with less than two minutes to go in a one goal game? Sinelli, Hyman, Selman, Copp, etc.

Darren Eliot said something early in the game that I thought was interesting. He said that when he had seen the Wolverines before, he thought that their players were using the poor goaltending as an excuse not to work hard. Now that their goalie is stopping shots, the team's confidence in him has gone up, and they're all playing better. I don't know if that was the case, but I can tell you even from playing at the extremely low level of hockey that I play at, it's really deflating to work your butt off to get back into a game and then have a soft goal go in. Or to come out ready to play and find yourself down on a couple of soft goals. I'm an extremely competitive person and I hate losing more than I like winning. And I'm not going to say I've always skated my butt off in situations like that. I think there could potentially be something to that.

On Saturday Michigan finished the job without any drama. They took a 1-0 lead on another big goal by Kevin Lynch. Jon Merrill found him with an absolutely threaded pass from his own zone to the far blueline. Lynch broke in and snapped one past Slubowski.

Late in the period Michigan turned it over in their own end and Hargrove was able to put one through a screen to tie the game. Michigan outshot WMU 15-3 in the first period, but came out of it all tied up. Nieves had been absolutely robbed by Slubowski a couple of minutes before that.

In the second, though, the Wolverines left no doubt as to who was going to the Joe. They put four pucks past the WMU goaltenders, the third of which chased Slubowski from the game. Moffatt fed Treais, who took a shot from a really bad angle that Slubowski stopped. The WMU keeper was way out of position after making the save and was slow to get back into his net. Treais was able to corral the rebound and slide it back to Sinelli who put one into an empty net.

Guptill nearly made it 3-1 moments later as Trouba absolutely walked a Bronco and fed him in the slot. Slubowski made a big save. Guptill would have the last laugh, though. Moments after Slubowski robbed Lynch on another Trouba feed, the big defenseman got it to Moffatt who fed Copp in front. The puck bounced back into the slot and Guptill put it in through some traffic. Less than a minute later, the season would end for The Big Slubowski. PDG skated through seemingly the entire WMU team. His shot was stopped, but the rebound sat right in front of the net. A Bronco failed to clear and DeBlois was able to knock it home.

Different goalie, same result. Moffatt found Guptill with a nice pass, Guptill spun and beat Hafner. That was Moffatt's third assist of the period. WMU would outshoot Michigan 9-3 in the third period, including a couple of stretches in the middle of the period when they pulled their goalie while on the power play, but they weren't able to solve Racine, who is playing with all the confidence in the world.

Think that team is having fun? At the end of the highlight video, Lee Moffie comes into the celebration and yells out joyfully, "WE'RE GOING TO RICK'S!!!!!!"

Want a great stat? The Michigan PK is 41 of 42 in the third period this year.

Michigan will now take on Miami in the semifinals, just as they did back in 2010 when they were in a win-or-go-home situation. The RedHawks are another great defense (#2, just .03 behind Quinnipiac), mediocre offense (#37). They do have Ryan McKay in net, however. He has a 1.20 goals against average and a .954 save percentage. More on Miami a little later this week. Should Michigan advance, they'll play the winner of OSU and Notre Dame for the CCHA Championship and the coveted automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

With that win, Michigan heads to the Joe for the 24th consecutive season. That makes for 21 straight senior classes that made it to the Joe all four years. Impressed, Rico?

Alex Guptill now has points in 9 straight (including seven multi-point games) and has matched the 33 points he scored as a freshman. Since Ohio State weekend when Michigan's hot streak started, no player in the nation has more points than Alex Guptill. PDG has 14 points in his last 12. Trouba is one goal away from tying the Michigan freshman defenseman record of 13, and is in striking distance of Jack Johnson's freshman points record. Since Racine retook the goaltending duties, he is 7-0-1 with a 1.98 goals against and a .919 save percentage.

In other CCHA news, it appears the Red Wings are close to signing goaltender Jared Coreau to a contract. Love that signing if it happens. Big goalie, who was outstanding for the Wildcats. He was a big reason I (incorrectly) picked them to finish high up in the standings than most. Nice to see them dipping into the college free agent waters.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Wolverines Face WMU in Do-or-Die Series

It's been all smiles for Steve Racine as of late.
Photo: Bill Rapai
Operation: Save The Season moves to Phase Two this weekend. The easy part is over. Michigan won their home series against NMU. Now the fun begins. Steve Racine and company travel to Kalamazoo to take on the WMU Broncos in a best-of-three series.

The task is daunting--the Broncos have only lost twice at home all season (13-2-3) and Michigan needs to beat them twice in a three-game span. WMU was 3-1-0 in the four games this year, splitting a pair at Yost before sweeping Michigan in Kalamazoo.

Here's the good news, though: Western can't score goals. They rank tied for 51st in the country (out of 59) in offense at 2.31 goals per game. The only teams with a worse offense are Harvard, Army, FYS (snicker), Bemidji, Maine (snicker), SEAWOLF, and Alabama-Huntsville. They're tied in offense with Sacred Heart who damn-near thought about trying to go 0fer this season. All eight of those other teams appear in a list of the 13 worst teams in the country by winning-percentage.

The reason WMU does not, and the reason they rank 8th in winning percentage? Their defense is really fricken good. They rank 3rd in team defense, giving up a stingy 1.92 goals per game. The only teams better? Quinnipiac and Miami, #1 and #3 in the PWR.

Since scoring 8 goals in a series against Michgan back in January, the Broncos have scored 5, 2, 4, 4, and 5 goals in their weekends since. They're 3-3-4 over that stretch. They've scored either 1 or 0 goals in a game in each of their last 4 series, so they've been vulnerable to a stink bomb. Michigan, on the other hand, since scoring just 3 goals while getting swept by the Broncos, has been held below 3 just one time. They've scored  8, 8, 11, 5, 9 in their last five series.

What does that mean? If the offense can put a few pucks in the net, they're going to have a chance to win this series. That's hard-hitting analysis right there, but it's true. WMU is 0-7-1 this year when they give up more than 2 goals, so they really can't outscore teams. The problem is that most teams haven't been able to put many pucks past Slubowski. Michigan only scored six times in four games this year, so easier said than done.

What they can't do is give up the soft goal that plagued them earlier in the year because Frank Slubowski  is good enough to not give them back. WMU has only lost two games the entire season when giving up two-or-fewer goals: one in Michigan's 2-0 win at Yost and one in their last outing, a 1-0 loss to FYS. They were, however, taken to overtime on seven different occasions when they gave up two-or-fewer, so the offense doesn't always score enough goals to win even when Slubowski is keeping teams at bay.

I realize that I just told you "If the offense plays well, the defense plays well, and the goaltending plays well, Michigan will have a chance to win this series" and that's as "no crap" as it gets, but the Broncos play a lot of really low-scoring games. Goals in this series are like three-pointers in a basketball game against Wisconsin: They mean a little bit more than they normally do. If you can get to 3, you're going to win.

WMU has two double-digit goal scorers: Senior Dane Walters (12-12--24) and junior Chase Balisy (10-14--24). Those two and freshman defenseman Kenney Morrison (7-12--19) each have six power play goals. They make up the bulk of WMU's middle-of-the-pack power play, which is 28th at 17.8%. It feels like Walters has always killed Michigan, and it turns out he has. He has 7-5--12 in 12 games against the Wolverines. Mike Leone is about a half-point a game guy, but he's averaged more than a point per game against the Wolverines and has averaged a point per game in his postseason career, so he could be a guy to watch as well.

Rearguard Danny DeKeyser is Jacob Trouba's defense "partner" on the All-CCHA First Team. Luke Witkowski made the second team. Neither of those guys have put up huge offensive numbers (15 and 10 points, respectively) so that shows you the respect they have around the league as solid defensive defensemen.

Walters, their leading scorer, is also up for the CCHA Best Defensive Forward honors. DeKeyser is up for Best Defensive Defenseman (an award he won last season), and Morrison is up for Best Offensive Defenseman, which is totally going to Trouba.

In net, it's been The Big Slubowski all the way. The CCHA Second Team goalie has earned every decision this season and has yielded only 87 minutes of playing time to his backup. He has a 1.85 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. Only two guys have played more minutes this year. Slubowski is 4-2 with a 2.01/.924 against Michigan in his career.

Western Michigan has eliminated Michigan from the CCHA Tournament the past two seasons, but their wins in Kalamazoo this year were the first times they had beaten Michigan at Lawson since 2003, so the Wolverines are no strangers to winning in that building.

On the Michigan side, Kevin Lynch is the guy to have a huge weekend. He has 12 points in 12 games against the Broncos and we know how he does in big games. Nieves and Copp each had 3 points in four games this year. No Wolverine aside from Lynch has scored more than twice against WMU.

Friday night's game will air on FSN Detroit. Saturday and Sunday (if necessary) will be streamed on WMU's pay-per-view website.

Not gonna lie, I like Michigan's chances. I'll take the Wolverines in 3.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Michigan Sweeps First Round Series With NMU

Photo: Bill Rapai
After Friday night's 3-2 victory over The Northerns, a game in which Michigan jumped on top 3-0 in the first period and then had to hold on for dear life, Red Berenson said of his team, "They thought they were playing hard, but they weren't playing desperate and there is a difference."

Well if the message for Saturday's game was to play desperate, message received. Michigan flat out dominated the Wildcats on Saturday, winning 6-2 and firing 50 shots at poor Jared Coreau in the NMU net.

Michigan outshot the Wildcats 12-5 in the first period on Friday's contest and put in three special teams goals. Northern Michigan took a Too Many Men penalty five minutes into the game and it came back to bite them. Jon Merrill took a shot from the point that was tipped on the way through. It came out to Coreau's right where CJ Ludwig tried to clear. He inadvertently knocked it into his own net for a 1-0 lead, and yet another sign that the puck luck might be starting to favor the Maize and Blue.

Scott Macaulay took a hooking penalty midway through the period and Michigan would capitalize once again. AJ Treais's shot from the point skipped out to Coreau's right, where Kevin Lynch was waiting. He buried it to give Michigan a two goal advantage. That was Lynch's 8th of the year, but it wouldn't be his last of the night.

Jacob Trouba took a hooking penalty and Ludwig was trying to bring the puck up ice as the Wildcats were changing. He got tangled up with one of the players changing, and Lynch picked his pocket like Ludwig was Keith Appling. He raced in all alone, made a nifty little shot fake to freeze Coreau, pulled it across the crease, and lifted the puck into the net. The move was good enough that I was celebrating before the puck even went in. I mean, he deked his way to a completely empty net. Yet another big-game goal for Kevin Lynch, in a career full of them.

Walt Kyle's team didn't roll over, however. They came out in the second period and turned the tide on the Wolverines, outshooting them 14-6 and scoring a couple of goals to get back into the game. After a strong forecheck to recover a lost faceoff in the Michigan end, Wade Epp's shot from the point was tipped by Kory Kaunisto, and after a review for a potential high stick, the goal was awarded.

Their other goal was on a fairly innocent-looking play. The Wolverines got shifted a little too much toward the right side of the ice and it left Bennett alone with two guys in the middle of the ice. Vigier took the shot, Racine left a rebound, and it was Nowick pouncing on it before Bennett could get to him.

The Wildcats had several other chances in the period, but Racine kept them at bay. They nearly tied it on a wraparound where the Nowick brought it back into the slot. Racine tracked him through traffic and made a really nice stop.

The third was much more even. The best chance for either team was DeBlois winning a race for a puck and centering for Guptill, whose tip just missed. Selman also had a good chance denied by Coreau's right pad.

NMU pulled the goalie late, but didn't have any chances of any real significance, and Michigan was able to hang on for a 3-2 win. I wanted to give a tip of the cap to Szuma and Serville, who I thought both had good games. In the second period, Serville got his stick on a puck that was going to result in a really high-quality chance for NMU. In the first, Szuma made a very nice clear in traffic to prevent a grade-A chance as well. Serville sat Saturday night, so hopefully it was just the flu bug that was going around, and Red isn't reading this thinking I'm bats*** for thinking he made some nice plays on Friday.....

The power play was 2-for-3 and the PK killed off both NMU power plays, allowing just one shot in the process and scoring a goal of their own.

Copp was the #1 star Saturday night as Michigan cruised to the second round
Photo: Bill Rapai
The question was, would NMU come out Saturday with more of what they gave the Wolverines in the second and third period of game one? The answer was no. Michigan had a thoroughly dominating performance that was only frustrating because it made you wonder where that's been all season, when they were losing games to bad teams at home. They outshot NMU 50-20, including a 23-6 margin in the first period, and a 16-3 margin in the second. The power play was efficient again, going 2-for-4, with the fourth power play being a 25-second chance to close the game. The PK held the Wildcats to 4 shots on 3 power plays.

The Wildcats had an early power play, but Michigan bottled them up pretty good. The best opportunity was when one of the Michigan forwards blocked a shot at the point and tied up his man enough to spring Moffie on a partial breakaway. An NMU player caught up and forced a backhand shot.

Michigan jumped out to an early lead once again and this time it was Alex Guptill scoring his 12th of the season on kind of an odd play. Guptill was in the corner and tried to center the puck. Both Nieves and PDG skated by it tied up with their men. The puck sat in the middle of the ice until Guptill went and got it himself. He slid it 5-hole for a 1-0 lead.

Michigan's power play went to work and Nieves bombed a shot off the post. It looked like something you would have seen Trouba shoot. They had some sustained pressure, but NMU was able to kill it off. Michigan just missed finding PDG in the slot late in the power play.

Racine kept the Wildcats off the board with a great pad save on a tip by Higby in front of the net. Following that, a strong shift by Michigan led to goal #2. They had pressure down in the Wildcat end for a good 30-45 seconds, and several scoring chances. The Wildcats were nearly able to clear, but a diving effort by Trouba to keep the puck in paid off. DeBlois centered the puck for Trouba and he just blasted one home. God that kid has a bomb....

Trouba laughs when opposing goalies try to stop his Trouba-ombs! (Or he actually laughs when Seckel gets the gate.)
Photo: Bill Rapai
Northern scored a goal late in the period to head into intermission with a little momentum. When you get outshot and outplayed that badly and go in only down by a goal, you have to be feeling good. Sinelli tried to throw the puck behind the net and it took a funny bounce. Nowick brought the puck out front and had a couple of whacks at it and was able to get the second one to go.

Michigan made sure it didn't matter, however. They came out in the second and it was more of the same. The Wolverines went on the power play and PDG found Bennett at the point. With Moffatt cutting to the net and possibly screening the goalie a little bit, Bennett fired a shot home to make it 3-1.

Moffatt's stickhandling nearly led to another goal. There was a scramble in front of the net and a Wildcat defenseman had to cover the puck in the crease because Coreau somehow got shuffled off to the side and was absolutely nowhere to be found. Treais took the penalty shot and tried the same move he used to score on Motte in the shootout last week. Coreau stopped that one to keep it 3-1.

Nieves then brought it on a power move to the net. NMU grabbed him and was called for a penalty. He didn't break stride and got a darn good shot away. That one had me raising my eyebrows. Between that move and the shot he bombed off the post earlier....if he stays, and if he has a summer in the Michigan weight room, watch out next year. With that speed, that shot, and his size? He could easily be a 50-point scorer. He has 29 as a freshman, and has 15 points in his last 13 games. When I watch this team and think about guys that I see in the NHL, Trouba is the clear first choice, but I think Nieves is second on the list. I think the Rangers got another steal from the Michigan program, and I think the sky is the limit for Nieves. Don't forget, he was playing prep hockey last year, so this is the first time he's really faced this quality of competition as well.

Nieves's work in front led to another Michigan goal, this one by, who else, Andrew Copp. Copp dumped it in and Guptill tied up his man, which let Copp dig it out and send it back to the point. They swung it to Trouba who took a shot and Copp knocked in a rebound. It was 4-1 after 2 and shots were 39-9.

In the third, Treais won a draw and Moffatt ripped one home. Even though Moffatt seems to be kind of an "is what he is" guy at this point, which slight improvement in his point total from year to year, he has so many passes and plays that would make the highlight reel that it just feel like he could break out at some point, doesn't it? Maybe it never happens, but he's definitely got some offensive skill.

Andrew Copp prepares for his penalty shot. He would score to give Michigan a 5-1 lead
Photo: Bill Rapai
Copp was hooked on a breakaway and he drew a penalty shot as well. I sure don't remember ever seeing a Michigan team (or any team) receiving two penalty shots in a game before. Maybe they're just testing Bruce Madej to make sure his research skills aren't rusty! Copp scored on his. Coreau went for a poke-check and when he opened up, Copp slipped the puck between Coreau's legs for his 9th of the year.That puts Copp in a tie for 4th on the team in goals. Who had that in the preseason? I can't possibly say enough good things about him.

Racine made two good stops to keep the game 6-1, one on a little tip in front that he got down to block, and another spectacular save on a 2-on-1. The Wildcats would slip one past him with just about a minute to go in their season as Fullmer shot back to Racine's left as he slid right and just got it past his toe. Still, a 6-2 win for the Wolverines in dominating fashion, and they advance to the second round of the CCHA Tournament.

Their opponent will be: The Western Michigan Broncos. By seeding, Michigan appeared to be headed for South Bend to take on the Irish, who were 4-0 against Michigan this year, but Michigan State has upset Alaska out in Alaska and the Spartans will head to Miami. That sends Bowling Green to South Bend, and Michigan heads to Kalamazoo.

Michigan was 1-3 against Western this year, but held a 2-0 lead in one game at Lawson before falling 3-2. The other was a blowout while Michigan was in their "fragile" phase. Western also won 4-1 at Yost (3-1 with an empty-netter). It'll be a tough series (they were 13-2-3 at home this year), but Western has been pretty inconsistent lately. More on them later in the week, hopefully.

In the meantime, the Wolverines can enjoy yet another series sweep, and yet another series where it certainly looks like they belong amongst the group of 16 teams playing for the NCAA Championship. They've still got a ton of work to do, but they're playing well at the right time. To steal a stat that Al Randall mentioned Friday night, Michigan has now given up 2 or fewer goals on 12 occasions this season. They've done it in four straight and 6 of the last 10, however. They've also given up 3 or fewer in 10 of the last 13 and in six straight. That's a good sign as they face a WMU team that is certainly not a high-powered offense. The Broncos are just 51st in the country at 2.31 goals per game. They're good because they only give up 1.92 goals per game (3rd in the country). Michigan can't let WMU put a lot of pucks in the net, because Slubowski (9th in GAA, 26th in save percentage) isn't going to give you a whole lot.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Having a Seat Over There: Christian Meike

According to a tweet from USHRhockey, defenseman Christian Meike (@CMeike4) has committed to the Wolverines. He picked Michigan over Dartmouth, New Hampshire, and Providence.

Meike is an early-96 birthday and actually plays for the Washington Little Capitals currently. He was on the DC Capitals last season. He's listed at 5'11", 150 on Pointstreak and has 2-14--16 with 14 PIMs in 39 games this year, to lead the Little Capitals' defense in scoring. He had 9 assists for the DC Capitals last year.

USHR wrote the following about him after the U16 Tier 1 Elite Showcase in January of 2012:
Mobile, puck-moving defender who has good offensive instincts. Once he gets bigger and stronger he will pop on to D-I recruiters’ radars. Going to Selects Hockey Academy next year.

They went on to say the following in April after the 96 World Selects Invitational:
Played this past season for the DC Capitals U16 team and will be headed to SHA next fall. Sound defensively and intelligent with the puck. Has a slick set of hands and makes a good first pass. Has the skill level to play on the PP, but will likely not be the shooter. Is very thin and frail right now, but if he fills out – and we are told his older brother is well over 6’0” -- he could be a D-I prospect.

They have also cited his ability to carry the puck in transition and jump into the rush. I assume that makes him a 2014 commit, but I'll update that if anyone gets more accurate info.

In other news, Matt Herr will be leaving Kent, where he coached Boo Nieves, for a position with USA Hockey. Herr was in the mix for the Assistant Coach position when Mel Pearson left for Michigan Tech.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Much More Like It

The seniors had reason to celebrate on Senior Night once again
Photo: Bill Rapai
After the week-from-hell in January when the Wolverines lost three home games to Bowling Green and Alaska, I wrote the following:

At this point, all I think they can really do is try to nail down home ice in the first round of the CCHA Tournament and try to be playing their best hockey come mid-March, as that's the only way they're getting in the tournament. (Does anyone hear Jim Mora when I say that?) And honestly, I'd put more of an emphasis on the latter. Try different line combos, different defense pairings when they have the bodies, since Rutledge is theoretically your most talented goalie, make it known that he's getting a few starts without having to look over his shoulder to see if that can get rid of some of his yips. Bring in Greg Harden. Anything they can come up with. Outside of home ice in round one, these remaining games really don't matter. The at-large bid is gone. Mid-March is when this team will get a chance to play and salvage their season like the team from three years ago, and everything should be pointed toward that goal. Whatever it takes.

They gave Rutledge his shot, but after 11 goals allowed in 5 periods against Notre Dame (most definitely not all his fault, but still, 2+ goals per period ain't getting it done), they turned back to Steve Racine. Outside of that? Mission accomplished. With a sweep of the Buckeyes and a 5-point weekend against Ferris State, Michigan locked up the 7-seed in the CCHA Tournament and the home playoff series that comes with it. It's impossible to not think they're playing their best hockey of the year right now, having taken 5+ points in three of their last four series, and played Notre Dame tough in the other (though the score didn't indicate it).

The offense has turned it around in a big way, scoring 31 goals in a 7-game stretch beginning with the home game against Michigan State. They've averaged 4 goals per game over their last four series. The defense has improved as well, holding Ferris State to two goals on the weekend and keeping Ohio State to six.

Racine was the difference, and that is a great sign heading into the postseason.
Photo: Bill Rapai

The biggest reason for confidence heading into the CCHA Tournament, however, is the play of Racine. For maybe the first time all season, the Wolverines could say they had a goaltender win them a game. Red Berenson did, in fact, say as much after the Senior Night shootout win over the Ferris State Bulldogs. From the sound of it, he was spectacular early. He was certainly spectacular late, holding the Bulldogs off the board on a breakaway in the waning seconds of overtime that was aided by having seven players on the ice, and stopping all three Bulldogs in the shootout.

I only got to see one period of action against the Buckeyes last weekend (the second period of Friday night's game), but it was the best period of hockey I've seen Michigan play all season. Ohio had one brief segment where they pressured Michigan late in the period, but aside from that, the entire session was played in OSU's end of the ice. The Buckeyes aren't Miami, but they're a solid-enough team and Michigan took it to them on their home ice for large chunks of time.

During Friday night's win over Ferris, I commented that Michigan looks like a completely different team than they did even against the Irish. Confidence is a funny thing. People have speculated that the opening-night loss to RIT and some of the early-season struggles sent the team into a funk that they couldn't get out of. The team didn't have confidence in the goaltending, some of the scorers weren't scoring, and they had a hard time responding to adversity. It's amazing what a few good things happening can do.

On Friday night, the Wolverines jumped on top 2:40 into the game when Zach Hyman was able to knock home a shot. DeBlois added another goal before the midway point in the first period off a rebound from Copp's glorious chance. Ferris drew back within 1 on a fluky play when Moffie cross-checked a guy into the crease and he was allowed to stay there for pretty much as long as he wanted. Racine was impeded, but they played on and Ferris scored.

Even after that goal, however, there didn't seem to be the "Oh, here we go...." feeling that seemed to accompany every goal against this season. The Bulldogs managed 17 shots over the second and third period, but only had a couple of grade-A scoring chances. It was a pretty awesome defensive effort and Racine was there when they needed him, making a couple of big stops along the way while the game was still in doubt. He seemed calm and comfortable in the crease, which is also something that hasn't been a common site this year.

Moffatt helped Michigan regain their two-goal lead off a great saucer pass from PDG. He took it off his skate, pulled the puck to his right and was able to tuck it past Motte as he was falling to the ice. Moffatt doesn't score a ton of goals, but they always seem to be worthy of the highlight-reel. Lee Moffie closed out the scoring on a play that seemed to indicate that maybe, just maybe, the bounces are starting to go Michigan's way. He flipped a shot from the point that skipped off the ice and eluded Motte.

That is a very smart Bulldog! Your cup will not protect you from a TROUBA-OMB! Also, hockey players are amazing.
Photo: Bill Rapai

On Saturday, it wasn't just the final regular season game for the seniors, it was the final regular season game for Michigan as a member of the CCHA. This one was a true goaltenders' duel. Racine (24 saves) and Motte (35 saves) were the #1 and #2 stars of the game. Both allowed just a single goal in regulation, but it was Treais getting the better of Motte in the shootout for the bonus point to the Wolverines. That point gave Michigan the #7 seed, which means they'll host Northern Michigan instead of Bowling Green next weekend. Possibly more importantly, however, the extra point means the Wolverines would get either Notre Dame (if Alaska beats FYS) or WMU (if FYS upsets Alaska) should they advance to the second round. If they were the 8-seed, they would have needed an upset to avoid a trip to Oxford.

Home ice wasn't even a certainty late in the game, however. Ferris State needed to win the game outright (not in a shootout) to host their second-round series against the Buckeyes, so they pulled their goalie in sudden-death overtime and it darn-near worked as Racine had to stop a breakaway opportunity with about 15 seconds left in the extra session.

Senior Kevin Lynch came through in his final regular season game at Yost
Photo: Bill Rapai

Kevin Lynch scored the lone goal for the Wolverines as Andrew Copp continued his stellar play by finding Lynch all alone in the slot. Ferris evened the game on a shot that deflected in off a Wolverine midway through the game. Then the goalies would pitch shutouts the rest of the way, though both had a little help. Motte was added by the post and a video review that never conclusively showed if a Copp/Selman shot made it over the line. Racine was aided by a Bulldog blocking his teammate's shot that was headed for the back of the net. Both goalies made plenty of saves to keep the game tied, however, possibly none better than the save Racine made right before he had a little help from his Bulldog friend.

In the shootout, Treais snapped one past Motte's glove and that was enough for the extra point. Travis Ouellette had to have at least 4 breakaways in the game, including the one in the shootout, and he was denied on all of them. I don't know if I've ever seen an opposing player have so many great chances in a highlight reel and not bury any of them, but Racine was fantastic. Even the ones he didn't have to stop because the opposing player shot wide, he left nothing to shoot at.

Another dramatic Senior Night comes to an end. And so, too, does Michigan's regular season tenure in the CCHA.
Photo: Bill Rapai
So now Northern Michigan will come to town for a best-of-3 series this weekend. Michigan played The Northerns twice this year, coming from 4-1 down in the third period to win 5-4 in a shootout after Treais tied the game with less than a second left and falling 4-3 the next night.

Maybe Michigan doesn't go into the CCHA Tournament as the favorite, but they're certainly in the conversation. Northern will present a challenge. Should Michigan advance, they're going to have to go on the road and win 2 of 3 against a good hockey team who is still fighting for their tournament lives, be it Notre Dame or Western Michigan. Then, should they advance again, they have two must-win games at the Joe.

It won't be easy. They squashed their margin for error a couple of months ago. But whereas a month ago pretty much all Michigan fans would have agreed that they had a chance in the CCHA Tournament the same way that Lloyd Christmas still had a chance with Mary Swanson, now the outlook is much brighter. The offense is clicking, the defense is getting healthy, they're getting quality play in net, their confidence is brimming, and they look like a Michigan hockey team is supposed to look.

Win six games like the 2010 team did from this very seed, and the struggles through November, December, and January don't matter anymore. Michigan still gets to play playoff hockey. It just becomes must-win a little sooner this year than in most year's past. They have a chance to salvage this, and if they keep playing like they have the past two weekends, they just might pull it off.