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.

3 comments:

yostmeister said...

Outstanding comments, Tim. Add me to the list weighing in on this team and the ontroversial comments made on MGo Blog.

Steven said...

niiice!

Stephan White said...

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.

Glyn Willmoth