If you play or follow hockey with any regularity you know one thing for certain: the team that emerges victorious at the end of a season or a single elimination playoff isn't always the team that should've won. Michigan's own history is replete with examples of this. Red Berenson's 1957 Michigan team was heavily favored to beat Colorado College, yet dropped the championship game 13-6. The 1997 Michigan hockey team was reputed to be Michigan's most talented team ever, yet they didn't make it out of the Frozen Four. There's the 1998 team, filled with youngsters and no where near the talent level of the '97 team, that walked away with the ultimate prize. And, of course, last year's team that came within a hair of missing the NCAA tournament all together, yet also came within a blown call of reaching the Frozen Four.
You would think that these sorts of outcomes make college hockey a game plagued by uncertainty and a random element of chance. In some ways that's true. The random chunk of ice that wobbles a perfect pass just enough to throw off it's final destination. A defenseman lowing a skate blade or a stick at the most inopportune time. An innocuous hit along the boards that knocks your best player out for the season. A point shot that deflects off the defensive forward and somehow spirals up and over the goalie for the game winning goal. Sometimes things just don't go your way.
But this is true of any sport, and the element of randomness in no bigger in a college hockey game than it is in college basketball, baseball or football. As we've seen in just about every Michigan basketball game to date, the team that takes it's foot off the gas pedal first is usually the one that suffers the ignominy of defeat. The 2009 Hockey National Championship Game was a perfect example. Sitting in the 200 level of the Verizon Center, I watched BU live up to it's billing as the No. 1 seed as it completely dismantled an extremely capable Vermont squad. Prior to the game I felt that the only way Miami could win it's Championship match up was if BU took the night off and slept walked through the contest. Well. That's what happened. BU was complacent and lazy for 55 minutes of play. Then, they woke up and played as they were capable. The result was the Terriers forcing overtime on one of the prettiest feeds you'll every see in college hockey (at 3:03). The overtime winner was simply inevitable. BU was too good not win that game.
The Michigan blueprint for the prior 10 CCHA Regular season championships was not dissimilar to BU's 2009 blueprint. Skill players that could easily be plying their trade in the professional ranks, solid defensemen, and a goalie capable of making their leads holdup (Though Marty Turco was easily the best college goalie the game's ever seen. Yes, I'm including Ken Dryden.). Michigan's overwhelming skill in years past lead to win after win and a brand of Play Station-like hockey that was both hugely entertaining and appealing to new fans. Watchign Michigan play during it's heyday from 1994-1998 was like watching a college version of the 80's Edmonton Oilers. They simply overwhelmed their opponents with speed and skill.
Even so, Michigan struggled to get past the Frozen Four prior to 1996. Speed and skill will score goals, but it won't guarantee wins. Teams willing to play united, team defense found chinks in Michigan's armor and bounced the heavily favored Wolverines from the tourney in methodical, and sometimes heartbreaking fashion.
Michigan has since throttled back. Not intentionally so. Sadly, the whole college game was forced to take a step back as the NHL revamped its collective bargaining agreement and more impetus was placed on bringing young talent into the AHL ranks (the NHL's minor league system). The days of sustained dominance in recruiting and player retention seem to be an element of a bygone era. We've seen first and second round picks commit to Michigan only to leave before setting foot inside Yost or to pack their bags when the NHL pushed hard enough. Pure bred superstars on the college ice will likely be fewer, and further in between.
In this respect, the game has changed. And yet there is Michigan, again. Winning it's 11th league title since picking up it's first in 1991-1992. As the game has changed, so has Michigan. Even though the Maize n Blue continue to heavily pursue to the best recruits in Midget/Junior hockey, Michigan has strengthened its commitment to recruiting players who will excel in the college game. The two propositions are not exclusive. In years past where Michigan would have two or three players legitimately in the Hobey Baker conversation, this season Michigan possesses only one surefire NHL first liner and host of sturdy second line players. Michigan doesn't possess a 20 goal scorer. It's starting goalie ranks in the 20's for save percentage and goals against. It's an entirely different beast. But it's still a beast, just for different reasons.
So far this season Michigan has surrendered just 83 goals. Though the season is not over yet, the only squads since the 1998 championship to even approach this level of defensive efficiency at the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 teams which allowed 89 and 84 total goals (and that's with CCHA and NCAA tournament play). You may also recall, those teams were pretty good, though not outstanding. But they also emphasize how things have changed over the last decade of Michigan hockey. Michigan is no longer the edge of your seat skills clinic that it once was (though it's still insanely talented in comparison to the rest of college hockey). It is now a disciplined hockey team capable of shutting down your best players and pouncing on your mistakes.
To use an old sporting cliche, it's a lunch pail group. Matt Rust. Chris Brown. Scooter Vaughn. Luke Glendenning. Mac Bennett. All have the speed and skill to make you pay, but none possess the skill to deeke you out of your shorts, steal your girlfriend, and eat your lunch the way past Michigan greats like Morrison, Madden, or Johnson did. They play as a unit. There's little freelancing or heart stopping dangling of the puck. This Michigan team prefers to go right through you, to pay the price in the corners, and jump on the opportunities that present themselves.
In a sense, this Michigan creates its own luck. Sure a bounce or a chip may not go its way from time to time, but this team is more often than not the aggressor in both ends of the ice. Though careless plays still pop up from time to time, they are far less frequent than when the season began. Defensive responsibility is paramount, and offense flows from that dedication.
Michigan isn't the fun and gun show it used to be, but it seems better prepared than most for the new world of college hockey. Michigan seems to have learned that they possess more than enough skill to light up a scoreboard, but it's a lot more fun to see the game end in your favor than to pile up a bunch of goals. It's something that took hold during last season's magical run from purgatory to elation. A dedication to defense.
The Blueprint has changed since 1998. But the results have not. Congratulations to the Men's Hockey team on their 11th Regular Season CCHA Championship. Go Blue.