Just two games separate the No. 1 overall seed Michigan hockey team from its ultimate goal: hoisting the national championship trophy.
But in order to get to that point, the Wolverines have some work to do.
On paper, it may seem like the Wolverines have cruised to their current position. They got past American International in the NCAA Tournament opener thanks to a five-goal outing. In the regional final, Michigan’s offense was even more explosive, pumping seven goals past Quinnipiac. Throughout, sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo has continued his regular season excellence in net.
While they ultimately won both games, defensive letdowns and inattentiveness to that side of the ice were still problems that plagued the Wolverines. These less-than-perfect efforts against the Yellow Jackets and Bobcats have left Michigan wanting more.
There’s a belief that this team has yet to play its best hockey, and there’s no better time to do so than in Boston.
“I know we’re going to play better,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Just getting through those two games. I was more concerned about that than how we’re going to do in the Frozen Four because you get that experience. You get to play two really good teams.”
Despite advancing to the Frozen Four, the Wolverines didn’t play their best against Quinnipiac. They jumped out to a commanding four-goal lead but in the third period, instead of closing out the Bobcats, Michigan allowed Quinnipiac to crawl back into the game.
The Wolverines would score three goals of their own in the final period, but allowed four during that process. Few teams can suffer that type of defensive collapse late in the game and still survive.
More talented offensive teams — like those that await in Boston — will make them pay for those lapses.
“I think we’ve got to work on a few things just in general and in our defensive zone,” senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg said. “Just kind of getting back to the basics for a skilled Denver offense.”
Against fellow No. 1 seed Denver, Michigan will have to be far more cautious with its aggressive style. Its lightning speed and sometimes careless defense may make the Wolverines vulnerable against the powerhouse Pioneers.
Denver averages a staggering 4.3 goals scored per game — a testament to its fast-paced, talented forward group and deep roster. Forward Bobby Brink leads the Pioneers in scoring, having tallied 14 goals and a nation-best 42 assists for 56 total points. But it’s not just Brink that poses a threat. Forwards Cole Guttman (19 goals, 26 assists), Carter Savoie (22 goals, 22 assists) and Brett Stapley (16 goals, 25 assists) have all reached the 40-point mark.
Against Denver, Michigan knows it will need to be at the peak of its game.
“(In terms of) defensive zone coverage, we were terrible against Quinnipiac,” Pearson said. “We got away with it and we’re not gonna get away with that against Denver. They’re the highest-scoring team in the country. We’re gonna have to be a lot better there.”
This isn’t to say that the Pioneers are one-dimensional. Their regional victories came by the scores of 3-2 and 2-1 — not the type of low-scoring battles you’d expect from the nation’s most prolific offense.
And so the question is, which offense will assert itself at TD Garden?
The Wolverines love to get out in transition and accelerate the pace of play. When you have a roster as talented as they do, it’s often beneficial to let those skill players operate in the open ice. And, for the most part, that’s what’s gotten them this far.
Michigan ranks third in the country in goals scored average, recording four per contest. Players like Blankenburg and freshman defenseman Luke Hughes are spark plugs on the backend, as they regularly weave through opposing forechecks to create offensive zone opportunities.
On Thursday evening, this group of Wolverines will be tested like never before. This season, they’ve been able to exert their dominance over inferior opponents — ones that simply can’t skate or stickhandle as well.
But against the Pioneers, Michigan’s aggressiveness will either be an overwhelming advantage or a fatal blow.