As I mentioned last Wednesday, I was able to make it back to Ann Arbor to see the Michigan half of this year's college hockey Showcase. Here are my thoughts on the two games.
Michigan 3 Wisconsin 2
The final score of this game really hid just how much Michigan controlled play in this game. If Wisconsin had come back to tie or win the game, their MVP may very well have been ‘goalpost’.
Michigan came out with a strong start, that was slowed by a couple of penalties, especially a five-minute checking from behind major to Brian Lebler. I think it’s up for debate about how legitimate the call was, but I will say that if it was possible to call a two minute minor and 10-minute misconduct for checking for behind instead of only five a game, like there should be, Lebler’s hit definitely would have been 2 and 10.
Michigan was able to kill off the penalty, and score their first goal of the game at the tail end of the penalty kill. Chad Kolarik did just about everything wrong on the goal. He could have picked up a teammate for a 2-on-1 had he slowed up on his rush a little bit, and the defenseman on the play fell down, meaning he could have skated in closer to the goal for a higher percentage shot instead of shooting from about the face-off dot. But Kolarik fired an absolute laser past Shane Connelly to cover for his mistakes. Very few players can shoot the puck like that, and beat a goalie from as far out as he was.
Michigan continued to control play in the second period., and built a three goal lead on the strength of two powerplay goals. The Wolverines looked pretty content to sit on their three goal lead, which almost cost them when Wisconsin finally connected on the powerplay with about 2 and a half minutes to play, and then scored again 18 seconds later. The Wolverines were able to hold on though, and got the win.
It was my first chance to see Kyle Turris play, and he really wasn’t that noticeable. Michigan did a pretty good job at keeping him quiet. Mike Davies and Ben Street both looked like more dangerous offensive threats.
Another thing that surprised me what that Wisconsin really did not like the Wisconsin teams of recent past in terms of their defensive play. Michigan does a great job of spreading out the ice and making long passes to open up rushes, but it seemed like they had way more freedom in the neutral zone than I can remember Wisconsin giving a team in a long while.
Michigan goalie Billy Sauer is having a much better year statistically so far, and though he has improved some, the biggest difference is the defense playing in front of him. His teammates are doing an excellent job of blocking shots in front of him, and more importantly, his defenseman are doing a great job of making sure Sauer doesn’t have to make any spectacular stops. Ben Street’s goal to bring the game within one was Wisconsin’s only real quality scoring chance where a player broke in alone. Last year’s Michigan team seemed to average 4 or 5 of those breaks per game.
Michigan 5 Minnesota 1
In the waning seconds of Minnesota’s win over Michigan at the Icebreaker Invitational, Jeff Frazee froze a puck near the goal line as Michigan tried to tie the game, and after the whistle blew, he chose to showboat a little by turning to the crowd and waving his arms to signal no goal. There weren’t many opportunities for Frazee to do that on Saturday night.
The two teams are probably more similar than the score would indicate. Both teams are playing with three freshmen defenseman every night. Both teams have very few upperclassmen. Both teams have young goalies(by age, not by class) that are respectable, but not outstanding. The difference in this game, and what will probably separate the two throughout the season, is that Michigan had two seniors in Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik that were absolutely dominant, and Minnesota did not. The Gophers were hoping to get that kind of production from Blake Wheeler and Kyle Okposo, but haven’t yet. Wheeler is having a very nice year, but hasn’t been able to carry the Gophers by himself. Also, the Gophers may have been done in by their own success against Michigan. Over the past couple of years, the Gophers have come out with an almost bizarre amount of jump and intensity for their games against Michigan. Whether it was winning however many in a row against Michigan, or the fact that they beat them earlier this year in St. Paul, I didn't really see that type of effort from the Gophers.
Porter and Kolarik were able to take advantage of Minnesota’s youth and defense and turn it into quality scoring chances a number of times in the game, and were able to turn a few of them into goals. Another problem for the Gophers is that they lack a true shutdown defenseman to match up against the top lines of other teams. Stu Bickel is a very good role player, but that role is not to be matched up with the best players in the country, and Michigan took great advantage of that match-up on a couple of occasions.
I still don’t think Minnesota’s problems are as big as people think. They obviously won’t be one of the top teams in the country like they have been the past few years, but they should still finish in the top half of the WCHA, behind Denver and Colorado College.
Michigan certainly looked like one of the best teams in the country this weekend. I’ve yet to see Miami play, but the Michigan/Miami series is starting look like it will be an amazing weekend of hockey.
The only potential problem I see is if Porter and Kolarik aren’t able to keep up their amazing scoring pace for the entire season. Michigan only had two goals this weekend that weren’t scored by the senior duo, and only one goal where they didn’t factor into the scoring at all. In fact, Porter and Kolarik have combined for 41% of Michigan’s goals this season. Hopefully for the Wolverines, Porter and Kolarik can carry the team until all of their freshmen can get their feet under themselves and start joining in the scoring. A number of the freshmen looked a lot better than they did in the Icebreaker.
On the plus side for Michigan, the team has played with incredible intensity so far on both ends of the ice. Again, it all starts with Porter and Kolarik. Both seniors, and especially Porter, are excellent in their own end of the ice, and that example has been passed down to the younger players. In addition to stopping shots and blocking passing lanes, the Wolverines are winning a large majority of battles for the puck. There must have been a dozen scrambles in front of the Michigan net for a loose puck last weekend, and nearly every time, Michigan won the battle and was able to clear the puck. Essentially, they’re playing the type of high-energy desperation hockey that you see in March and April in November.