Tonight at 7:30 CST the Michigan Wolverines will drop the puck against the North Dakota Fighting Sioux for the right to advance to the 2011 NCAA Men's Hockey Finals. If you're a hockey fan, it doesn't get much better than this.
Looking at the match-up, it's clear that North Dakota is the favorite coming into tonight's game. They've given up one goal in the tournament so far while scoring twelve. If I start talking about +/- ratings, etc. they'll make you pass out, so I'll avoid that. What you need to know is that the Siouxare really, really good. They've sat a top the College Hockey Rankings for most of the season and have run up a staggering record of 32-8-3 (21-6-1 WCHA). Like Michigan, NoDak's been hot of late, going 14-0-1 in their last 15 games, while Michigan's gone 11-1 in their last 12 games. Unlike Michigan they have five players with forty or more points (Only Michigan's Carl Hagelin has more than forty ).
But Michigan's been the favorite too many times to think that it's all about the numbers coming into a game. To get to the finals, it's going to take discipline, effort, and a little bit of luck. For once, the puck bounced Michigan's way in the first round. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't, but Michigan worked hard enough to earn that game. It'll take an even greater effort tonight to make it to the finals. With that in mind, I put together 10 Keys to the game for the Wolverines. It's four hours to puck drop, so now's as good a time as any to start getting ready.
Keys to the Game
10. Shawn Hunwick versus Himself - Let's be clear, I love this kid. He's feisty. He's athletic. He's quicker and twitchier than a mutant squirrel on crack (and just about the same size). But, when things get busy around the crease Hunwick's angles on the puck start to get screwy. Worse, when the puck comes around the boards on a dump in, his "stick handling" causes more trouble for the Wolverines than... well... I can't think of a metaphor. Let's just say he's no Marty Turco back there. He's more like Darren Pang.
For Michigan to have a chance in this game, Hunwick's going to have to be rock solid and play within himself. I love his aggressiveness at cutting down the angle and being scrappy with crashing forwards, but sometimes he tries to do too much. He'll either push himself out of position or get distracted by the men in front. On the dump in he'll over think and turn the puck over on a bad pass. This is not the team Michigan can afford to have that happen against. Hunwick must stay on his angles and temper some of his aggressiveness to avoid getting out position. On the dump in's, just stay out of the way. Don't get cute. As a matter of fact don't even leave the net. It'll keep me from yelling and throwing things at my television.
9. Michigan versus Stupid Penalties - Despite the wins, Michigan's taken some horrifically stupid penalties the last few games. Matty Rust's boarding/check from behind penalty being the most obvious and egregious example of this. North Dakota has one of the best, if not the best, Power Plays in the country (converting at nearly a 25% clip). Michigan's penalty kill has been fairly good the last few games, but when you take dumb penalties you're tempting fate and asking for trouble. I have no problem with effort penalties, but when you're tripping, boarding, checking from behind, or taking some kind of "you're not moving your feet!" penalty that's a different story. Play hard, but don't play stupid.
8. Keep Pressure on North Dakota's Point Men - North Dakota isn't just power up front. In fact the Sioux are very potent on the back end. Defenseman Chay Genoway has 37 points on the season and NoDak has a slew of heavy shots on the blueline. When you've got the size and skill of a NoDak, one of the things you love to do is suck the defensive forwards down low in order to free up your point shots. Point shots with traffic in front are always the most dangerous and it's something North Dakota seems to excel at. Michigan must maintain defensive discipline and keep their spacing. It's okay to help in the corners so long as you've got help to the blue line and the back side. If North Dakota has time to shoot from the point, it's going to be a long night for Michigan. By keeping the pressure on their defensemen Michigan will hamper NoDak's offense and might even create some turnovers.
7. Hagelin and Caporusso Must Figure In the Scoring - File this under "Duh", but it remains a fact. Capo notched a goal and an assist in the win over UNO, but neither registered a point against CC despite combining for 10 shots. The dynamic duo is definitely generating some offense (21 combined shots in the tournament), but they've got little to show for it. Michigan managed to get by CC without either of their big guns registering a point, but these two must score for Michigan to win this game.
6. Avoid the "Lull" - I don't know if you've noticed it or not, but Michigan averages about two three minute "lulls" a game. And good lord are they bad. They'll basically get shelled during that period of time and be back on their heels. Thankfully, Hunwick has been able to withstand these lulls, but it's been a dangerous, ongoing problem. Michigan can't let up or NoDak's going to pounce.
5. Get traffic in front of the net - This is as old a hockey cliche as there is, but continues to ring true. Despite out shooting UNO and CC in their two prior games, the majority of Michigan's shots were dead-on, no traffic shots that the goalies saw without issue. While Scooter Vaughn's rocket was pretty, Lee Moffie's knuckle puck was beautiful. Why? Because the Wolverines had all kinds of traffic in front, and that shot doesn't go in if CC's goalie see's it cleanly. This becomes even more important tonight because of who Michigan is going up against. Sophomore Aaron Dell has a .924 save percentage and is third in the country in minutes played. North Dakota has leaned on him all season and he's shown no sign on breaking under the pressure. Even so, he's human. If he can't see the puck, it's going to be a lot harder to stop it. Michigan has to get bodies to the net to create screens and to bother Dell. Collapsing on the crease will also keep NoDak's talented defensemen pinned down low and slow their breakout. When a goalie is as hot as Dell, you're not going to beat him with a pretty shot. You're going to beat him by doing the dirty work down low and poking in a lose puck during a scrum. Ugly goals count just as much as pretty ones, and those are the one that usually win playoff games.
4. The Third Line Must Win The Battle of the Lines - Whether you want to call Scooter or Rust's line the "third line" is up to you, but for purposes of this bullet I'm calling Scooter's line the 3rd. I think this will be one of the most important parts of the game. Rust's line will be going up against arguably the best point producing line in the country. Hagelin and Capo will get NoDak's best defensive pairing and line. That leaves Scooter's line up against NoDak's third line. Michigan must, must, must win this battle. Vaughn and company have produced a tremendous spark for the Wolverines the last few games and they've done it while playing solid defensive hockey. I think for Michigan to win this game Vaughn's line has to be a +1 in goal differential against it's matchup. The size and speed of his line should give Michigan the advantage over NoDak in a game where the Sioux honestly have a size and skill advantage on the other lines. If Scooter's line is in the negative, I don't like Michigan's chances in this game.
3. Michigan Must Stay Aggressive With the Puck - The one thing that's truly marked Michigan's run over the last few games is that the Wolverines are attacking their opponents, rather than playing a sit back, passive game. In bullet 5, I said that Michigan's had too many non-screen shots on net. What I didn't say was that they should stop taking them. Michigan needs to get as many pucks on net as possible because that's the only way they go in. Yes, file it under "duh", but talented hockey players tend to forget that the only way to score is to shoot and spend their offensive zone time dinking around looking for the improbable beautiful finish. Michigan needs to keep getting the pucks on net and they also need to be more aggressive getting bodies to the net to screen and cause havoc with NoDak's Aaron Dell. If Michigan starts to sag back and play a defensive "make them turnover the puck and counterattack" offense, they're screwed. The Sioux are far too talented for that to work. As they say with bullies, the only thing you can do is punch them in the mouth because if you don't, they're going to do it to you.
2. Don't Get Cute in the Defensive Zone- This hasn't been too much of a problem, but every now and then Michigan tends to get a little too cute with their outlet passes or their change of directions under pressure in the corners. The boards are your friends. If you get in trouble, fire it high and hard off the glass and regroup. Another reason to stay away from getting cutsie in the zone is NoDak's sheer size. Dancing with the puck is going to get you flattened by the Sioux's gigantic front lines. Michigan has to avoid bad outlet passes that result in quick counterattacks or turnovers on their half of the ice. While the forwards have the benefit of needing to be aggressive only John Merril and Chad Langlias really have the pure skill to be anything other than defensive defensemen. Stay within yourselves and allow Merril and Langlias to pick their spots. If the Defense does that, Michigan will be in good shape.
1. BACKCHECK LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT- North Dakota has scored 12 goals in two games, and a lot of those goals have come on odd-man breaks where their opponents have gotten caught flat footed. Michigan went up against a similar foe in Colorado College, but negated those scenarios by back-checking like fiends. They're going to have to keep doing that to prevail tonight.
Well, that wraps that up. We'll be watching the game tonight from the edge of our seat. There's no way I'll be able to tear myself away from yelling at the screen to competently do a liveblog, so if you're up for commenting, use this as your game thread.
See you guys on the other side. Go Blue!