Michigan Hockey: First Half Analysis — Major Rebound Necessary To Salvage 24th Straight NCAA Tourney Bid
Wolverines Close First Half of Season With Home Split Against WMU
Western Michigan and the Wolverines closed out the first half of the season splitting their series at Yost Arena. The Broncos physically dominated Michigan through most of last Friday night’s 4-1 victory. The Wolverines came out fairly strong in the first period and had several early chances. Western capitalized on an offensive zone turnover and shoddy goaltending to take a 1-0 lead. AJ Treais blindly threw a clearing pass that was intercepted and eventually wristed towards the net. Defenseman Brennan Serville provided a perfect screen while covering a Bronco forward in front of the net and the puck slipped between Michigan goaltender Steve Racine’s pads. Late in the period the Broncos added to their lead after Lee Moffie was whistled for an unnecessary crosschecking penalty. Racine got a piece of a shot from the deep slot, but it slithered under his arm to extend the lead to 2-0.
Early in the second period the Broncos capitalized on a bad line change that led to a 3×1 break. Racine has no chance on a perfect passing play, deke and score to extend the lead to 3-0. The Wolverines played pretty well from that point forward, but could only answer in the 2nd period with Phil DiGiuseppe’s 2nd goal of the season to narrow the gap to 3-1. Michigan wasted a 5×3 advantage during the early stages of the game and looks lifeless until PDG’s tally. The game remained 3-1 through the 3rd period until Michigan pulled Racine with two minutes left and holding a power play chance. The Wolverines could do nothing with it and yielded an empty net goal with: 10 left to end the game. Saturday night saw a more determined Michigan play WMU even for forty minutes, with both teams equally inept in finishing their chances. Coach Berenson inserted third string junior netminder Adam Janecyk as the starter and he held the door shut. The Wolverines finally broke through in the third period on defenseman Brennan Serville’s first career goal and sealed the game with a PPG from freshman defender Jacob Trouba. The 2-0 win was Janecyk’s first career win and first career shutout.
The weekend split gave Michigan a little bit of a lift entering the holidays and possibly some momentum moving toward the GLI tournament. A few weeks ago I took a look at what was going wrong with the team, and it came down to four points:
1. Injuries. Jon Merrill’s loss in the first exhibition game was definitely a blow to the fragile blue line chemistry. Merrill is a steadying force on defense, eating up huge minutes and controlling the power play. He is expected to return in January, but, considering the serious degree of his neck injury, Michigan will be very cautious before allowing Merrill to play. Outside of losing Merrill, Michigan has struggled with other blueliners being nicked up through the first 17 games. Kevin Clare has been out with an undisclosed injury (presumably a shoulder) and Brennan Serville suffered a concussion against Miami earlier in the year. The bottom line is, injuries (and in Jacob Trouba’s case, a suspension) have placed undue pressure on the defensemen, forcing Berenson to utilize a reserve forward (Jeff Rohrkemper) on defense in one game and a preferred walk-on defenseman (Mike Szuma) in several others this season. The sudden August defection of incoming freshman defenseman Connor Carrick to the OHL has been damaging considering how decimated the depth on the blue line has been this season.
2. Schedule & Road Play. The Wolverine’s schedule wasn’t deemed to be too difficult out of the gate with the likes of RIT and Bentley, but quickly has proven to be quite daunting in conference. The CCHA may conclude its final season with at least three teams ranked in the top ten-Notre Dame, Miami and Western Michigan (and possibly a fourth with Ferris State). Unfortunately, Michigan’s four game cluster includes both the Irish and the Bulldogs. Miami played the Wolverines right as the season began and split with them at Yost. Michigan also lost on neutral ice to a ranked Cornell team in non conference play, meaning that the Wolverines have played nine of their first seventeen games against ranked opponents- with six of those games at Yost. The Wolverines didn’t take advantage of home ice, finishing 6-5 so far at home and are 0-4-2 on the road. The second half schedule will place Michigan on the road for nine of their remaining fifteen conference games- with four away and two home games against ranked teams. The Wolverines will have to turn around their fortunes on the road and basically win out at home in order to secure a top five spot in the conference and offer some hope of winning the CCHA tournament and earning a bid to the NCAA tournament. Most chances for a NCAA at large berth are gone now unless they miraculously win the majority of their games regardless of where they are played. The good news is, they will play most of the teams above them in the standings and are currently only six points from 5th place in the CCHA.
3. Forwards/Defensemen Underperformance. Michigan has 11 NHL draft choices on this team and has two players that are playing to their potential: Kevin Lynch and Mac Bennett. Lynch has 4-5-9 on the season and has been providing the intangibles that come with leadership. Bennett (4-8-12) has been the team’s steadiest performer on the ice and leads the team in plus/minus. He is rarely out of position or makes mental errors. The draftees that were counted on to score goals (Alex Guptill, Luke Moffatt and Phil DiGiuseppe) have a combined 6 goals and 27 points this season. Freshman forward Boo Nieves is 3-8-11 so far but also was thought of as more of a points producer. Merrill, as mentioned before, has been injured. Zach Hyman has been a valuable fourth line checking center/winger, but came into Michigan as an Ontario Junior League offensive superstar. He just has not gotten his offensive game raised to the collegiate level, but has settled into a nice role. Brennan Serville is a big defender that is more defensive minded but has been rather inconsistent on the blueline, even if his +/- is pretty effective. Freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba certainly has shown flashes of brilliance, but it is often dulled by his penchant for poor pinches or overaggressive physicality. Defenseman Lee Moffie has not had the offensive impact he has had in his previous three seasons at Michigan, and now his defensive game is beginning to waiver. His late game gaffe in the first Notre Dame game resulted in the winning goal for the Irish.
The remainder of the roster has also produced mixed results. Captain AJ Treais has been juggled back to the third line and, even if he leads the team in points, and is T7th in the country in goals, his defensive coverage and decision making have been nothing short of awful. Treais, in fairness, has probably been the major offensive reason Michigan has won or tied their games this season. Senior Lindsay Sparks has had more focus on his defensive responsibilities but is struggling offensively, as has junior Derek DeBlois. Hard working freshmen Andrew Copp, Justin Selman and Daniel Milne have been a bright spot as far as effort, but it hasn’t translated into points production. The same can be said for sophomore Travis Lynch, who has taken some untimely penalties. Reserves Jeff Rohrkemper and Andrew Sinelli give what they can on the ice when given the chance to play, but are not impact players. Veteran defenders Kevin Clare (no points, -7) and Mike Chiasson have wilted under the pressure of more ice time and have looked lost defensively during long stretches of games. Reserve defender Mike Szuma has been solid and hard working in the games he has been plugged into, but will never be mistaken for a top six defenseman. Overall, the forwards haven’t been able to balance their two way play effectively, and the blueliners have often tried to play beyond their capabilities. They are all equally accountable, though, for their lack of production on one end and horrible mental errors on the other end. This team is better than they have performed and now are fighting mental demons that have depleted their confidence.
4. Poor Goaltending. I haven’t dug too deep into Michigan’s recent past in order to compare the last time Michigan’s goaltending struggled so poorly. The closest I came was during the 2005-06 season when freshman Billy Sauer pushed senior Noah Ruden for the duties. (That team actually started 11-5-1 only to finish 21-15-4, including an embarrassing 5-1 loss in the NCAA tournament.) Even that team made the tournament though- as did the ‘09-’10 miracle team (26-18-1) led by Shawn Hunwick and last season’s 24-13-4 squad, again, led by Hunwick.
This Wolverines team is in danger of being compared to the early non-NCAA tournament Berenson teams (’84-85: 13-26-1, ’85-86: 12-26-0, ’86-87: 14-25-1, ’87-88: 22-19 & ’88-89 when the Wolverines finished 22-15-4. The next season, ’89-90, when the team finished 24-12-6, was the first season Berenson went to the NCAA tournament.) The common thread was poor goaltending and the lack of difference makers-not necessarily inadequate skill/performance.
Freshman netminder Jared Rutledge was supposed to be the incumbent goaltender that would take the mantle and lead the team for the next four seasons. He struggled in his first game against RIT and has not recovered since. The former USNDT standout has all of the credentials to move into the role, but has never gotten on track. His 1-4-0 record with a 4.58 GAA and .847 save % is indicative not only of his own play, but that of the team in front of him. Steve Racine, also a freshman, has actually performed better than his numbers (4-5-2, 2.94 GAA & .885 save %) but has been prone to giving up soft goals and fat rebounds. The journeyman junior hockey goaltender is an adequate back-up but may never possess the skill to take a division I team on his back. Junior Adam Janecyk has not been given much of an opportunity to play based on his performance in practice and in the exhibition win over Windsor to start the season. Janecyk’s shutout on Saturday was a combination of the Bronco’s not playing to their capability combined with Janny’s ability to make the stops that goaltenders at this level should make. The good news is Janny will be given the chance to play probably until either he fails or the team in front of him morphs back to their careless, sloppy defensive play again. Forgotten reserve Luke Dwyer will probably not see the ice unless injuries occur. The bottom line is, although the team in front of any of these netminders has performed poorly, the buck stops in net. A goaltender has the ability to steal games and change the momentum of a team. Hunwick proved that, especially since his teams often abandoned him defensively. None of these players has proven so far that they can do it for more than one game, nor have they proven that they can consistently make the stops they should at this level. Unfortunately, the fortunes of the season rest on their shoulders. Their play must be above their team’s play and they must be able to carry the squad. If they don’t improve, it will most likely end the 23 year NCAA tournament run Michigan has enjoyed.
-Michigan’s freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba has been selected to try out for the USA’s U-20 World Junior team which will be held in Ufa, Russia this year. He will most likely be named to the team and will miss the GLI tournament. Trouba has 4 PPG’s and is tied for 6th in the nation.
-Former Michigan standout Brandon Kaleniecki (2002-2006) was named head coach of the Dearborn (Mi.) Divine Child Hockey program. Congratulations, Brandon.
-What’s up with the attendance: Yost’s renovation did bite into the capacity a touch, which is now officially 6,637. BUT, Michigan has not gotten near that capacity in 11 games at home this season. Yost attendance is averaging around 5,300 which is at least 20% below capacity and trails rival MSU in average attendance. When adjusted for percentage of capacity (since not all CCHA buildings are the same size) Michigan trails four other schools (Notre Dame, Miami, WMU and MSU) in attendance. (In fairness, only Notre Dame and MSU come close to the same capacity as Yost.) This signals two concerns: 1) the struggles of the team and 2) Michigan ticket pricing have hit its point of diminishing returns. Most noticeable is the empty chunks in the student section and pockets in the south end zone. Hopefully Mr. Brandon has taken notice.
-Next Action: GLI Tournament, JLA, Detroit, December 29-30. Michigan versus Michigan Tech and MSU versus WMU.
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Written by GBMWolverine Staff — YostMeister
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