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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Right, so hockey coverage has been nonexistent. This changes... now!

The Story So Far

Yuck. Awesome. What? ARRRRGH.

Basically that. Michigan started the season with a walkover of overmatched opponents, though the Saturday UConn game provided a dark foreshadowing of what was to come when Michigan was sailing through, up 6-0, when they let the UConn Connecticut Huskies of UConn Who Suck score five straight goals in a game no one saw because it was on at the same time the Penn State game was. So what happened? You got me. I was busy watching Alan Branch eat Anthony Morelli's face.

...but I can guess!
  • Matt Hunwick got walked around at least twice.
  • Billy Sauer faced several slapshots from the Josh Blackburn zone of you let that in?
  • The third and fourth lines got caught in their zones for entire shifts.
  • The freshmen defensemen brought gift baskets overflowing with turnovers.
That's wild speculation, mind you.

After an understandable split with Miami -- one of the three teams in the CCHA who have separated themselves from the pack at this early date -- Michigan faced perennial Hockey East bottom-dweller Northeastern and freakin' split, losing 3-2 despite outshooting the Huskies 47-20. (Many goals, few shots will be a theme.) That loss will be a PWR anchor all year. The season's low point came the next Friday, when Michigan went to Munn and turned a 3-1 lead after one into a 7-4 loss.

Then they ran off seven straight wins. Go figure, I don't know. They even kept the puck out of the net, keeping opponents to two or fewer goals in five of the seven wins, and against fairly quality competition: two MSU games, two against UNO, one against Wisconsin (though the Badgers are inexplicably terrible this year). Then came Minnesota, the #1 team in the country, and an 8-2 loss featuring four (four! F-O-U-R!) shorthanded goals, a dismal loss to Western that featured horrible play from Sauer, Hunwick, and Chris Summers, and a skin-of-their-teeth win at Lawson featuring Steve Jakiel in net. Jakiel did not exactly show himself to be Michigan's knight in shining armor, giving up 5 goals on 29 shots.

Michigan stands at 12-5-0 right now, headed for another tournament bid and neck-and-neck with Notre Dame and Miami for the league title but not a serious threat to do anything in April unless they stop fishing the puck out of the net every five minutes.

What's Gone Right

  • TJ Hensick. Long dogged by accusations of selfishness -- though not from this quarter -- Hensick's senior year is turning into the best display of passing I've ever seen anyone in a Michigan uniform put on. Kevin Porter has Milan Gajic disease something wicked but still has 13 goals and 16 assists because he's getting two glorious chances per period on Hensick's wing. David Rohlfs was such an offensive force he played D for the past two years; this year he's averaging over a PPG and has already smashed past his previous season high for points (13 as a freshman forward) by seven. Why? Because Hensick is a dirty mofo, that's why. Theory: they should put Brandon Naurato on his wing just because he can shoot, and that's all he can do. It worked for Andy Hilbert.
  • Jack Johnson. An erratic freshman season where Johnson won the crowd's admiration but not many games has been followed up by pure domination. A force at both ends of the ice, this is the Jack Johnson who went in the top five of the NHL draft. One thing: someone who does not play 30 flawless minutes a night should probably be the one getting fighting majors when Sauer gets run.
  • David Rohlfs. Sure, he's the beneficiary of all those Hensick passes, but let's review: 10-10-20 with little powerplay time from a player who was a non-entity on offense before this season. Red always liked Rohlfs, placing him on the powerplay when he was a freshman, but never got much production out of him. Rohlfs does the dirty work for the Hensick line and gets rewarded for it. May be playing himself into Edmonton's fall camp.
  • Brian Lebler. For a guy who never scored in junior, Lebler sure has some stickhandling ability. He makes a lot of smart little plays, takes the body, and is working his way up onto the Cogliano line slowly but surely.

What's Gone Wrong

  • Billy Sauer. We're approximately a year and a half into Sauer's career and there's no evidence he's good at hockey. While Sauer's not exactly playing behind the 1994 Devils here, he's also posting a .892 save percentage. Last year he posted a .898. In the USHL he did a little better at .904, but was still beat out Shane Connolly -- now Brian Elliot's backup at Wisconsin and a major suck vortex his freshman year at .885 in nine games, five of them rare UW losses -- and his .911.

    That's the statistical case against him. He saves nothing. The anecdotal case against him is equally simple: last week against Western Michigan I'm pretty sure I saw him toss his blocker at a shot that wasn't even on net and deflect it into the goal.

    This is different than Al Montoya, who clearly didn't give half a crap his junior year and had a proven track record of being damn good. There was always a chance he would snap out of it. Sauer has left a trail of "meh" in his wake and it's unlikely to get any better. Unfortunately, Noah Ruden's gone and Jakiel... well, Jakiel was beat out by a recruit we have coming in next year and traded. Also, five goals against.

    Still, we've seen a lot from Sauer and all indications are that he's just a bad goalie. Platooning Jakiel may reveal him to be a better option.
  • Defensemen not named "Jack Johnson" and "Tim Cook" (seriously!). (That Cook-to-forward experiment was a disaster I hope we won't see repeated -- with Dest out for the next month with a shoulder injury and Jack gone for the WJC, I'm sure to get that particular wish until at least January. Cook has turned into a reliable, uninspiring defenseman. At forward he may as well not even have a stick. Anyway.) I don't know what's with Matt Hunwick, but ever since the game-losing goal against Wisconsin where Hunwick's man split him and a shocked Jack Johnson, I panic when I see him one-on-one against an onrushing player. And shockingly, I've been right to do so this year. People just dance past him on a weekly basis. It's amazing. Senior captain: take the damn body.

    Summers and Kampfer have been turnover machines and generally tetchy, but as freshmen they have a built in excuse. Summers, at the least, skates gorgeously and clearly has tremendous upside, but too many times this year he's weakly attempted to purse-check his opponents and watched them waltz in for scoring opportunities.
  • Lines without Hensick and Cogliano on them. The third line is close to getting off the dreaded MGoBlog naughty-word-for-poop list, but we need more crash and bang and less "help I can't break out of this zone." The only guys on the team who are minus overall other than statistical blip Anthony Ciraulo? Turnbull, Lebler, and Bailey (a frightening -9). The fourth line is a mishmash of JJ Swistak 2006 -- no offense, Fardig, I always liked Swistak -- a guy who can't do anything but shoot, and whichever walkon is so not being Trevor Lewis on this particular night. Effective? Not so much.


A fundamentally flawed team that's riding the brilliant performances of a few amazing players. Hensick, Johnson, and to a certain extent Andrew Cogliano are carrying the team. The offseason defections of Lewis, MacVoy, and Swystun are being felt keenly, as that's the difference between the Michigan teams of years past where guys like Gajic and Ryznar were our third-liners and this one. While no one would ever confuse Gajic and his sawdust stick with stardom, he was still a plus player who you could count on for double-digit goals and a whole lot of gorgeous misses. Once you get past the Hensick and Cogliano lines, the offensive skill consists of some flashes from Lebler and the (very) occasional wicked wrister Naurato gets off. Top heavy are the Wolverines.

Defensively, Johnson's dominant and then Mitera and Cook are competent. Hunwick is still an enigma; Dest and the two freshmen are turnover machines. No quarter necessary.

And then there's goal. While Sauer's not the only issue -- he's been five goals worse than a goalie with an NCAA-average (.904) save percentage, and removing those five goals moves Michigan up from 44th of 59 in GA all the way to... 37th! -- he, like junior Montoya before him, has been obviously subpar. Combine that with festival de turnover and hello sir I would like you to have a breakaway, especially shorthanded and you get bad.

Good news: if the defense tightens up and cuts down on the opposition's chances and the third line gives up and just traps the hell out of everyone, the top-end talent on Michigan's roster is enough to outscore just about anyone. Bad news: unlikely to happen, and Sauer's probably not going to get a visit from the Goalie Fairy with five-hole caulk anytime soon.

Midseason-esque Projection

In a battle all the way with ND and Miami for the CCHA title. Probably finish second. Tournament bid as a 2 or 3 seed; fate depends heavily on opponent. WCHA = WCH-dead. Grinding team a la Cornell? Probably okay. Frozen Four unlikely; national championship verrry unlikely.