This has been nothing if not an up and down season for the Wolverine hockey team. Through most of the year we have had to deal with “The Friday Problem”, which may have originally had something to do with goaltending, but even after Bryan Hogan went down with a groin injury and our little friend Shawn Hunwick took over full time, the team came out flat in almost every Friday game, even when they won. On the other hand, there was an eleven game stretch in which we saw nine wins and two OT losses (one of which to our little brothers from East Lansing had to be one of the most poorly officiated games in CCHA history, but I digress) only to drop one to State of our own accord and look simply poor during a 0-2 trip to Miami(OH). So in light of our flip-flopping team I’d like to shell out a few reasons why Michigan hockey will go all the way to an NCAA title at the end of this season and a few why, when all is said and done, we will all be left with that bitter taste in our mouths yet again.
St. Paul Here We Come. Why Michigan Will Win The NCAA Title
Four Lines – This team may not have as much talent as we have seen at Yost in the past but there do not seem to be any gaping holes anywhere on the line sheet no matter who Red Berenson decides to toss out there. Michigan can roll four lines and three D-pairings without feeling vulnerable whenever a certain group is on the ice. The splitting of Louie Caporusso and Carl Hagelin at the beginning of the year along with the stellar play of lesser known players like Scooter Vaughn and AJ Treais has made the Wolverines one of the deepest teams in the country. Even if you nit-pick you can’t really take many shots at Lindsay Sparks, Jeff Rohrkemper, or Derek DeBlois when they suit up. On the back end there are times when Mac Bennett and Kevin Clare look like freshmen but the blue line is pretty solid all the way through.
Carl Hagelin – The Swedish future Ranger has been nothing short of spectacular in the hefty majority of Michigan’s games this season. I hate to make the comparison so early in his career, but the similarities to Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg are nearly un-avoidable. It’s the fact that he does so much in all facets of the game that make a lot of think of his fellow Swede. His 35 points in 30 games (12 ahead of the next closest Wolverine) are not even close to the most significant contribution he has made to this team. What he does in the defensive zone is incredible for someone who is counted on so heavily on the other end of the ice. The Michigan penalty kill is fourth in the CCHA at 86% and there is no player who has more to do with any penalty that Michigan kills off than Hagelin. During a 5-on-3 against Alaska in the third period a few weeks ago, Carl was on the ice for more than two thirds of the kill. The total hockey player would not be complete without the leadership skills that, as a captain, Hagelin brings into the locker room. It is not possible to accurately put into words what the Swede means to this team.
Lack of an Unbeatable – Let’s be honest if Michigan had gotten the regional victory over Miami that they deserved last year they would have gone into Ford Field with an entire state behind them in what could only be described as a home series in the Frozen Four… and proceeded to have their tails whipped by Boston College. That team was one of the fastest and most offensively scary teams I have ever seen in college hockey and they were going to raise the trophy regardless of who was on the other side of the ice. There is no team like that this year in the country. BC sits on top of the rankings at 19-6, which is impressive but not mind blowing. In the one opportunity I had to see the Eagles play this season they looked good but nowhere near where they were last year. It doesn’t appear as though anyone else has decided to step into that role. Yale looked good for a while but as soon as the Bulldogs ran into some other top teams they looked decidedly average. Out west Denver has been very effective but again have not shown that swagger that last year’s BC took all the way to the top.
Riding a Hot Streak All the Way In – Michigan has two home stands against Ohio State and Western before traveling to Northern Michigan to finish the regular season. The Broncos provide a challenge but these are six very winnable games for the Wolverines. If they can take all six and really get to the top of their game there is not a team in the CCHA that can take Michigan down when they are playing at their best. Unless Notre Dame or Miami get unbelievably hot, leaving the Michigan colors attached to the CCHA Playoff Champions banner at Joe Louis Arena seems like a legitimate possibility. If it all comes to fruition Michigan would be on a ten game winning streak as the National tourney starts and would, in all likelihood, grab a #1 seed in the St. Louis region. That kind of momentum can carry this team past anyone they might face in St. Paul and bring another title to the best program in college hockey history.
Sorry Folks Not This Year. Reasons Why Michigan Will Not Win the NCAA Tittle
Goaltending – I hate to even make this point because I am such a huge fan of Hunwick and Hogan, but neither of them ever give me that same level of confidence I used to have when the likes of Marty Turco and Al Montoya (cough cough should have stayed four years cough cough) were between the pipes. Hogan played very well at the beginning of the year and Hunwick has been ridiculous in a few since he has been the starter, but I simply do not see it. Goaltending can win you games in the tournament but it can REALLY lose them for you as well. Possibly the most talented Michigan team this side of the millennium was the 06-07 team. Conjuring memories of Hensick, Hunwick (Matt), Johnson, Porter, Cogliano, and Kolarik; this team should have been completed by goalie worthy of the talent level in front of him, instead 18-year-old sophomore Billy Sauer gave up 8 in the first round of the NCAA regional to see the Wolverines bounced by North Dakota. I’m not saying the Michigan goaltenders will have this kind of meltdown but hope does not spring eternal.
Louie, Louie? – Last year Louie Caporusso was a threat to score every time he had the puck inside the offensive zone. His two goals that gave Michigan the CCHA title over Northern at the Joe last year were a microcosm of what he could do for a team. Since the calendar turned to December 2010, Michigan’s second leading scorer has only three goals, and just eight on the season; Scooter Vaughn has nine. Not that he has completely disappeared, he still make plays in the offensive zone and works hard defensively but there are a lot of guys on this team that can do that. There are very few who can score like Louie can. If the Wolverines want to go on a run this post-season Caporusso has to take care of whatever is going on in his head and find the scoring touch he has lost.
Those Pesky Redhawks – We saw what can happen if Miami comes to play and Michigan doesn’t this past weekend. The Redhawks totally shut down Carl Hagelin and the rest of Michigan’s top two lines, leaving AJ Treais to pick up two in the first game and putting a goose egg on the board on Saturday. On the other side of ice Andy Miele and Cater Camper, the #1 and#2 leading scorers in the conference, tore the Michigan defense up, especially on the power-play. Miami’s biggest problem over the past few years has been getting up for big games, but for whatever reason when the Redhawks see Maize and Blue they catch fire. I have said that this team is much better than their record and if Michigan sees them in either the CCHA or the National tournament I will be very, very afraid.
The Unthinkable – Michigan is playing poorly. The last three games aside, they did not look great against Alaska in a series they swept, and had to come from behind the Friday before that against Ferris State. This run of bad form has been marked by a lack of offense and just enough defensive mistakes to lose, both of those things need to change quickly or Michigan could drop a game to OSU or Northern, another to WMU and find itself having to make a deep run into the CCHA playoffs or risk ‘gasp’ missing the NCAA tournament. Sitting 13th in both major polls it is easily conceivable that Michigan would fall out of the top 15 if they manage to lose two of their last six regular season games. At that point, the thinking would probably be that Michigan has to at least make it to the title game, if not win the whole thing, to be guaranteed a spot in the big one. Can anyone else see Michigan State coming to Yost in the second round with the opportunity to end Michigan’s twenty-year streak of reaching the NCAA’s and somehow managing to take two of three? Or hitting the aforementioned Redhawks in the first game in Detroit? If the Wolverines can not get back to playing up to their best before they step on the ice against the Buckeyes on Friday, the unthinkable could become a reality.
So which is it going to be? Will this season end with glory or pain? Your guess is as good as mine.