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Saturday, November 1, 2014

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Michigan hockey: Grading the season

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Jeremy Summitt, Daily Sports Editor
and Erin Lennon, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 1, 2014

In a season with high highs and even lower lows, a second straight Michigan hockey season without an NCAA Tournament appearance is tough to swallow. Despite a talent-filled roster, one unit’s weakness emerged often enough to overshadow another’s hot streak, and ultimately, the Wolverines became the first team out on Selection Sunday.

With hindsight at 20/20, the Daily grades Michigan, position by position.

Forwards: How’s this for inconsistent? From Nov. 22 to Dec. 11, the Michigan hockey team netted 20 goals on its way to a 4-0-1-1 record in that span. The next five games, the Wolverines mustered just seven tallies, spiraling into a 1-3-1 rut.

The team lacked a dominant scoring threat all season, which eventually cost it a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Say what you want about forwards freshman JT Compher, sophomore Andrew Copp and junior Alex Guptill, but they came up short in separating themselves as elite scoring options when Michigan needed one most. That’s not to say the trio isn’t loaded with talent, but the Wolverines never had that go-to guy up top in late-game situations.

In the final contest against Penn State, skating against a goaltender with a sub-.900 save percentage, Michigan scored only one goal. Wins don’t come easily with that sort of offensive performance.

Despite averaging 3.06 goals per game, the offensive unit could never string together more than a few impressive performances in a row. The Wolverines scored seven goals in three separate games throughout the year, and an abundance of potential was present from the beginning of the season. But when the offense went cold, finding the net was like trying to dig through ice with a toothpick.

Grade: B-

Defense: At one point in the season — the point at which the Wolverines had only one loss to blemish a record that included wins over Boston College and Boston University — the fledgling defense was asked to produce more on offense.

At one point in the season, freshmen Nolan De Jong, Michael Downing and Kevin Lohan filled the voids left by former Michigan defensemen Jacob Trouba and Jon Merrill, and they did it admirably. Guided by seniors Mac Bennett and Kevin Clare, the unit made an offense that netted fewer than three goals a game look good.

But by the end, Michigan’s top four defensemen — Bennett, Clare, Downing and junior Sinelli — combined for just 44 points. Bennett finished with 14 points, the captain’s lowest total since his freshman year.

In 30 of 35 contests this season, Michigan either led or was tied after one period of play. When goals were at a premium, as they often were, the Wolverines lived and died by the defense. In the second half of the season, that meant gut-wrenching losses.

This inexperienced unit was predicted to be the weak point for a program that emphasized defense en route to 22 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

But no one could have predicted defensive blunders from veteran players. No one could have foreseen three turnovers-turned-goals that turned a 3-1 lead into a 4-3 loss to the Nittany Lions, just as no one could have predicted Bennett’s gaffe three weeks later against the same, lowly opponent.

Grade: C-

Special Teams: One of the most evident strengths of Michigan’s season was its special teams play. The power-play unit ranked 22nd in the nation with a 19.55-percent success rate. Tied for second in the Big Ten with eight power-play goals, senior forward Luke Moffatt played a pivotal role all season on the man advantage.

Meanwhile, the penalty kill didn’t fare quite as well statistically with an 81.7-percent success rate, ranking 33rd in the nation. However, the Wolverines did accumulate four shorthanded goals. Three came from Compher — good for the best mark in the Big Ten.

At one point in the season, Michigan surrendered just two power-play goals despite taking 21 penalties in a six-game span. While the impressive performance on the defensive end didn’t translate into positive results — the Wolverines went 2-3-0-1 in those games — Michigan coach Red Berenson had been preaching consistent penalty killing. Perhaps that was the lone consistent effort his squad displayed for much of the year, but it was certainly something to hold in high regard.

Grade: B+

Goaltending: Sixty-three times in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament against Penn State, freshman goaltender Zach Nagelvoort gave his team another chance to salvage its season. One more save and a goal from his teammates, and the Wolverines may very well be practicing at Yost Ice Arena this week.

Instead, Nagelvoort was screened midway through the second overtime frame and his school record-breaking effort became the last of his freshman campaign.

Without strength at the position, some of the Wolverines’ nine one-goal wins are losses.

Though the last two years of Michigan hockey ended without an NCAA Tournament appearance, perhaps the most striking difference between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons was goaltending. Last season, from a horse race of disappointing candidates, then-freshman Steve Racine emerged as a leader, taking the Wolverines to a CCHA final and earning himself the starting job come September.

But when the sophomore suffered a groin injury weeks into the season, it seemed consistency would be a luxury Michigan couldn’t afford for a second straight season.

In the sophomore’s place, Nagelvoort, a late commit out of the NAHL, provided coaches with an almost-happy problem — two reliable starting goaltenders.

For much of December and January, Berenson made his decisions on a nightly basis, giving the nod to the goalie who performed best most recently, and forcing the two to compete during the week. After seven consecutive starts, when it seemed like Nagelvoort would be first on the depth chart each night, a slip-up against Penn State in early February forced him onto the bench against No. 1 Minnesota.

And back in the crease, Racine’s performance complicated the situation once again.

“They’re the ones making the decisions, even though I have to make the final decision,” Berenson said before leaving for St. Paul. “They’re the ones that make it easy or hard with the way they play.”

Ultimately, Nagelvoort — who finished the season with a .929 save percentage, allowing just 2.20 goals per game — established himself as an elite netminder along the way and, after weeks of uncertainty, received the starting role when it mattered most. Racine played half as many game as he did last season, allowing a respectable 2.91 goals per game in 13 appearances.

But like this season, consistency in net came just a little too late.

Grade: A-