And Then There Were Four

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Michigan – a team many thought were destined to miss the NCAA tournament halfway through the season – held on for their second victory this weekend, punching their ticket to the national semifinals for the first time in a half-decade-plus.”

That’s right; I’m talking, of course, about the Michigan hockey team, which secured a Frozen Four berth on Sunday with a 6-3 victory over Boston University, joining the Final Four-bound men’s basketball team in their sports’ respective national semifinals (a feat accomplished four other times by Michigan and twice by Michigan State) and punctuating one of the most successful weekends for the school’s athletics program in recent memory. More importantly, perhaps, it gives me the chance to write about a winning hockey team for a change. I can write a eulogy for the Wings’ season later; right now I get to actually be enthusiastic about the hockey I’m watching.

Michigan hockey is going to the Frozen Four, and like Red up there I’m not really sure what to do with my hands. The 48 hours of basketball- and hockey-induced sphincter clenching have passed, and for once Michigan … came out on top? Sorry if this seems like a forgotten concept to me, but it kind of is – over the years of watching Michigan sports I’ve become conditioned to expect us to blow it. Any time I get my hopes up for a Michigan team I almost immediately have them dashed, so to see Jordan Poole’s last second heave find nylon and Jake Slaker’s (fantastic name, by the way) wrister pinball into the back of the net feels a little foreign. Outside of Trey Burke’s game-tying three against Kansas, and maybe whatever the hell you’d call the back-and-forth end of Under the Lights Part 1, it seems like Michigan is always the one that ends up losing on some WTF bullshit play – Trouble With the Snap, The Horror, Evan Turner, Josh Gasser, Ben Brust, the 2010 hockey overturned goal versus Miami. I’ve seen it all and I come to expect it at this point. To have a couple bounces go our way is rather refreshing.

Rarely have I agreed with anyone more than I currently do with Morris and his parable of the man with the hammer (which, by the way, if you haven’t read his article yet please go do so; it’s fantastic as always). As I watched the seconds tick away on Michigan’s basketball season last week, a friend wondered aloud to me why we do this to ourselves, watching in agony as our team disappoints us yet again; I had little in the way of an explanation for him as those melancholic minutes ate away at us. In the frenzied, tangled mess of yelling and hugging and high-fives as we watched Poole dodge his ecstatic teammates, however, I gave him his answer: we do it for moments like these. The highest of sports fandom highs are when you have accepted defeat and asked for forgiveness, only to have prayers answered and hopes resurrected. When Michigan squandered a lead late in the third period Sunday after a veeeeerrrrry questionable offside review, I had accepted the outcome of the game because it was one I had seen dozens of times before: demoralized, Michigan would surely concede again and that would be all she wrote. Instead, Michigan buckled-down, regained the lead on a fluky goal of their own, and showed that they were the better disciplined team – something that would have seemed far-fetched the year prior.

After missing the tournament yet again last year, long-time head coach and Michigan hockey legend Red Berenson stepped away from the program, retiring after his 33rd season at the helm. If you ask most people familiar with the program, this move came about three or four seasons too late. Although Red will forever be celebrated by the University and its fanbase, it seemed clear at times during his last few seasons that the game had started to pass him by. Berenson’s teams became increasingly sloppier, increasingly less disciplined, and relied more heavily on their talent to beat other teams. Michigan hockey games became track meets, which can be exciting until 7-5 and 6-3 scorelines start to go the wrong way the majority of the time. Michigan missed the tournament in four out of Red’s last five seasons; the only time they made it was when they had an NHL-ready first line.

pearson
Pearson, in his first season at Michigan after working as the head coach for Michigan Tech for six years, has rejuvenated the Wolverine hockey program.

Hired to replace Red at the beginning of this season was Mel Pearson, a former Michigan assistant and head coach of Michigan Tech University. Pearson was the prize catch of the college hockey coaching carousel, after masterfully revitalizing the Husky hockey program in his time in Houghton. During his six-year tenure as head coach of the Huskies, Pearson improved the team’s record from four wins before he got there to sixteen after his first. In his final three seasons at Tech he rattled off a three year stretch of twenty wins or more, including the Huskies’ first two NCAA tournament appearances in over thirty years.

In his first year at Michigan, Pearson has overseen a similar revitalization of the program, improving from a 13-19-3 mark in Berenson’s final year to 22-14-3 this season and counting. Pearson’s single-season turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable, and has happened through some of the same principles that make John Beilein’s basketball squad so fearsome: limiting turnovers and transition opportunities for the opponent. Michigan has become a much better puck possession team under Pearson, with shot-events-for jumping from 52 to 62 per game since last year, and shot-events-against falling from almost 71 down to just under 62. Just as Beilein’s teams have emphasized, Pearson’s Wolverines have cut way back on the number of odd-man rushes they surrender as well. It was a common sight to see an opponent get four, or five, or six OMRs in a game during the later Berenson years; now they are lucky to have more than one or two. As an individual example of Pearson’s preaching of defensive responsibility, Jake Slaker, who scored the go-ahead goal against Boston this Sunday that would ultimately prove to be the game-winner, was the leading scorer on last year’s team with 21 points and an unholy plus-minus rating of -21; this year he is the team’s 4th leading scorer with 27 points and a much more encouraging +3 rating. Michigan’s 75% penalty kill unit ranks fourth-from-last in the country and leaves much to be desired, but hey, the man’s not perfect. Beilien’s team has its Achilles’ heel too, what with their abysmal free throw shooting causing hypertension in even the most cool-headed of Wolverine fans.

As it stands now, a Notre Dame team that Michigan swept the last time they met awaits the Wolverines in St. Paul. Michigan matches up well with a Fighting Irish squad that has one of the hottest goaltenders in the country, and even in the two previous losses to Notre Dame on the season, Michigan looked like they absolutely belonged in the game. The last time Michigan was in the Frozen Four, in 2011, they beat the Fighting Irish in the semifinals in St. Paul as well. Should Michigan beat them again this year, the Wolverines would face the winner of Ohio State and Minnesota-Duluth. OSU, those old foes, have been the only team able to consistently stifle the Wolverines this season, sweeping them five games to none in conference play, and are the third member of the Big Ten Conference – which was criticized heavily for most of the season by fans of other schools for being overrated – to make the Frozen Four this season. It goes without saying that Michigan would welcome a shot at revenge against a hated rival in the championship game. Minnesota-Duluth, for their part, also offers a shot at redemption: it was the Bulldogs who defeated the Wolverines in overtime of the finals at that 2011 Frozen Four. Pearson and the Wolverines certainly still have a tough road ahead of them, but they’re playing damn good hockey as the year rolls on. And who wants to bet against a Michigan team on a roll right now? Since February 1st, Michigan basketball and hockey teams have gone a combined 25-3, and have lost only once since March began.

Michigan may not be favored to win next Thursday, nor would they be favored were they to advance to the finals on Saturday. Still, the hockey tournament rarely goes according to plan: since 2003, when the tournament format expanded to include 16 teams, 1-seeds are 44-20 in first round games; after winning all of their games for the first three years, they are merely 32-20 since ’06, with a 4-seed winning at least one game each year since. Single-elimination tournaments featuring college kids are always a crapshoot, and Michigan is rolling a very hot hand right now. Both John Beilein and Mel Pearson will look to let it ride come crunch time. I’m not convinced that Michigan is truly one of the best four hockey teams in the country, but in this sport, at this point in the season, they dont need to be. They just need to be lucky. I like Michigan’s odds in both semifinals – they may not win a title in either sport, but damn if it hasn’t been fun.

 

Predictions for the Frozen Four:

– Michigan 3 – 2 Notre Dame

– Ohio State 4 – 2 UMD

Championship game:

– Michigan 3 – 4 Ohio State

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