The College Hockey Showcase took place this past weekend, and once again, the WCHA ended up coming out on top. After Michigan and Michigan State dominated the first decade of the annual series, Minnesota and Wisconsin have rebounded and won every year in recent history. This year's series was a little closer, as Michigan beat Wisconsin on Friday night. It was the first, and only victory in the College Hockey Showcase for Michigan's senior class.
I watched both Michigan games and caught some of Minnesota/Michigan State. I didn't see any of MSU/UW, but from the looks of it, I'm glad I missed it. Here were my thoughts on what I saw.
Given the way they played, Michigan was lucky to come out with a win on Friday night. They put themselves in a difficult 2-0 hole, and were able to dig their way out thanks to some great goaltending by Billy Sauer, and some uncharacteristically poor goaltending from Brian Elliott. The was much more wide open than what I would have expected given the way that Wisconsin has played this season.
After a bit of a shaky start, Billy Sauer was outstanding for Michigan. I thought he gave Jack Skille too much of the far-side to shoot at on Wisconsin's second goal, but after that, he settled down and made some very nice saves. Perhaps some of it was artificially inflated by Wisconsin's inability to finish plays off. One play where Matt Ford got the puck on the side of net and couldn't finish it comes to mind. But any time you make 34 saves in a game and only allow 3 goals, you're seeing the puck pretty well.
Brian Elliott, on the other hand, did not play his best game. Michigan's second goal came off a one-timer from the slot by T.J. Hensick. It was a quick shot, but certainly one Elliott would like to have back. The fourth goal was kind of similar, when a quick shot by Andrew Cogliano handcuffed Elliott and beat him blocker side. The other two were more defensive breakdowns that allowed Michigan to have an easy tap-in for a goal, that you couldn't really fault Elliott for. Incidentally, and Wisconsin fans can correct me if I'm wrong about this, but when I've seen Elliott struggle, it seems like he gets beat pretty consistently low to the blocker side. There aren't many holes in his game, but if there is one, that seems to be it.
I kind of expected Michigan to get blown out against Minnesota. Minnesota has a lot more talent throughout all four lines, whereas Michigan's team is really lacking depth. My brother summed it up best when he said, "There are way too many guys on Michigan's team that I think are expendable." That, combined with the fact that Michigan was playing their 5th game in 8 days meant that the Gophers had a huge advantage going into this one.
Michigan actually could have made a game of it, but Kellen Briggs was outstanding in the first half of the game. He made a huge save on Tim Miller to keep the score 0-0 in the first period, and made a great breakaway save with Minnesota up 2-0, shortly before Minnesota came back to make the score 3-0. I can't say Briggs won the game for Minnesota, because I think they would have anyway, but he was the difference between Minnesota scoring a couple goals in the third period for a come-from-behind victory, and Minnesota scoring a couple goals in the third period to make the game look like a blowout. The biggest knock against Kellen Briggs throughout his career is that he hasn't been able to make the difficult saves to steal a game for Minnesota, and he showed signs of doing that.
I'm sure it was nice for Jim O'Brien to score his first two career goals against Michigan. He's a Minnesota-born kid, but spent his entire high school career in Michigan, playing for Little Caesar's and then the NTDP. Despite being one of the top players in the country, Michigan never offered him a scholarship(not that he would have accepted it if they did, but it's still gotta be something in the back of his mind). I was actually kind of surprised that he hadn't scored prior to this game since he's such a talented player.
Ultimately, Minnesota absolutely dominated this game, but the score was probably a little worse than it should have been. Michigan held the game close for two periods, and ran out of gas in the third period, and Minnesota was able to tack on some meaningless goals to run up the score. It was the first time that Michigan has given up five goals in a single period since 2003.
The two big stories to come out of this weekend are that Minnesota has seperated themselves as the top team in the country, and the foolishness of the CCHA's scheduling.
Other than the Maine game, Minnesota has looked pretty invincible this season. I refuse to be like every "analyst" you see on ESPN, and make LOUD STATEMENTS that because they've won a few games in a row, they're never going to lose again. They're playing great hockey right now, but they're still incredibly young and will probably hit a slump somewhere along the line. This year's team continues to be a stark contrast from last year's team. Last year's team relied more on perimeter play, while this year's team does an amazing job of getting the puck low and grinding things out with their cycle until they find someone open in the slot or at the point. The fact that they can throw three freshmen out at forward and do that is remarkable and speaks to the level of talent they've brought in.
The CCHA needs to do something about their Tuesday games. The new three-weekend playoff format is nice, but not really worth it if teams are going to have to play on Tuesday. Both Michigan and Michigan State ended up with awful performances on Saturday night, more than likely due to having to play their 5th game in 8 days.
I see three possible solutions to this problem:
1. Go back to the old playoff format. That's probably not that great an idea since the Thursday afternoon game was always pretty embarassing in terms of attendence.
2. Only let the top 8 teams in the playoffs. I'm not in favor of this either. The CCHA has been pretty deep the past couple years, and a pretty good team will likely end up in 9th place this year. It's unlikely they'd win the whole tournament, but I'd like to at least see them get the chance to do so.
3. Schedule better. The Michigan/Michigan State would have been better placed the Tuesday after Michigan's series against Notre Dame. Both Michigan and Michigan State have a 20 day lay-off between that series and the Great Lakes Invitational, and while I understand that they want to keep that time open due to final exams, it's only three days after the previous series, so they're not missing that much time.