On Sunday afternoon, the Michigan hockey team celebrated an NCAA Tournament bid in year one of the Mel Pearson era.
The Wolverines (20-14-3 overall), the third-youngest team in college hockey, won just 13 games a season ago. In mid-January this year, they were just 27th in the PairWise rankings. Just reaching the dance is a monumental accomplishment in and of itself.
But if Michigan has learned one thing from playing in the Big Ten, arguably the nation’s best conference, it’s that success — no matter how unexpected — that only has so many rewards.
With that said, the Wolverines’ first-round draw against No. 3 seed Northeastern (23-9-5) seems almost preordained. On paper, the Huskies, PairWise’s ninth-ranked team, are a brutal matchup for Michigan. They possess a dangerous offense and a staunch defense, ranking fifth and sixth in the country, respectively. Their power play is better than all but two teams nationally. And stud freshman goaltender Cayden Primeau is the owner of a pristine .932 save percentage.
Much of this might sound familiar to Wolverine fans. In fact, Northeastern is a team constructed like the last team they played.
Ohio State earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with an efficient offense, lockdown defense and goaltending and terrific special teams play — like the Huskies. Michigan played the Buckeyes five times this season and lost all five.
There are still positive signs, however. On Mar. 10, the Wolverines, riding a seven-game winning streak at the time, took Ohio State to overtime in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal, by far their best showing against the Buckeyes. If that performance showed anything, it’s that Michigan is peaking at the right time. But to take down Northeastern, that must continue.
The Daily looks at three things the Wolverines must do this Saturday to advance to next round.
Better defense against the Big Three
The Wolverines may have the ‘DMC’ line — the dynamic forward combination of seniors Tony Calderone and Dexter Dancs and junior Cooper Marody. But Northeastern has the Big Three.
Hobey Baker finalists Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura as well as captain Nolan Stevens make up the Huskies’ top forward line, a lethal combination of speed, skill and power — and a possible nightmare for an ever-fluctuating Michigan defense.
Gaudette, the Hockey East Player of the Year and newly-announced Walter Brown Award nominee, led the nation with 30 goals, 60 points and eight multi-goal games. The junior also notched 11 power play goals, two shorthanded tallies and two hat tricks.
Not far behind is Sikura, whose 52 points — 20 goals and 32 assists — rank third-best in the country. He’s also tied for second in college hockey with 5.09 shots on goal per game. Stevens rounds out the trio with 24 goals and 17 helpers in 37 games.
Tied for seventh-worst nationally in goals allowed per game with 3.35 and ranked 35th in team defense, the Wolverines will need a stalwart backline to combat the Huskies’ offensive juggernaut.
While Pearson was quick to point to Northeastern’s top line, he stressed the overall importance to lock down defensively.
“D-zone coverage, a lot of back pressure and tracking, just getting ready to play hard without the puck,” Pearson said. “We’ll play hard with it, we just have to make sure we have the mindset that we have to play extremely hard without the puck.”
More robust scoring
In the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines swept Wisconsin in a masterful showing of offensive output, tallying 13 total goals over two nights.
Where that output came from, however, was different both nights. In game one of the quarterfinals, Calderone scored four times to lead Michigan to a 6-5 victory.
But the team that took the ice the next night looked nothing like the team from a night before.
Michigan found twine from all over the ice in that fateful second matchup, as skaters like sophomore defenseman Griffin Luce made it past Badgers goaltender Jack Berry.
From the forwards, freshmen Jack Becker and Dakota Raabe alongside junior Brendan Warren all contributed as well, proving that the Wolverines boast an eclectic front line.
However, a week later in the Big Ten semifinal matchup against Ohio State, Marody netted both of Michigan’s goals.
While there’s nothing wrong with the Wolverines’ two best scorers doing what they do best, if Michigan wants to make a run deep in the NCAA Tournament, it will have to exude the versatile style of play from the second matchup against Wisconsin rather than the first.
After all, if Calderone and Marody are the only two skaters that can produce, powerhouse teams like Northeastern and Cornell will figure out how to shut down two of five.
“Everyone on the roster has to work hard” — which stands as the perennial sentiment from coaches around the country — may just not be enough in the Tournament.
Killing penalties and blocking shots, which Wolverines such as Raabe and Becker have championed, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Everyone needs to produce results in the scoring summary if Michigan wants to see its name slated for the Frozen Four.
Stay out of the box
This might be the most important key — because it doesn’t only apply to Saturday’s game.
Michigan’s penalty kill — in the kindest possible language — is a mess, and has been all year. The Wolverines rank 57th out of 60 teams in the country when down a man. Their timid approach to killing penalties has constantly left shooters open and sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne out to dry. Even last weekend at Ohio State, that showed no signs of changing, as the Buckeyes’ two goals in regulation came with the extra man.
Northeastern’s power play, meanwhile, has scored on 27.2 percent of its chances this season. Sikura and Gaudette have combined to score 24 goals with the man advantage themselves — for comparison, the Wolverines have scored 26 as a team. The power play might be the Huskies’ biggest strength, and it feeds straight into Michigan’s greatest weakness.
The Wolverines have two options here. One is to unleash the speed of players such as Jake Slaker, Warren and Raabe to create havoc and possibly even shorthanded scoring opportunities. Michigan caught a glimpse of what that might look like back in February against Wisconsin, where Raabe was a one-man wrecking crew, drawing two penalties against the Badgers in their own zone.
The second option is not to commit penalties in the first place. In this regard, the Wolverines have been fine — ranking 24th in the nation in penalty kill attempts per game — barring four preventable penalties last weekend against the Buckeyes. Obviously, staying out of the box is the best option, but it’s one of those things that is much easier said than done.
While the Wolverines’ roster might have the talent to be at least an effective penalty kill, that ship sailed a long time ago. With at most four games left in the season, Michigan is what it is. If the Wolverines are to beat Northeastern, it almost certainly will come in spite of their special teams, not because of it.