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Takeaways from Michigan hockey’s first four games

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The Wolverines are off to their best start of the Mel Pearson era.

NCAA Hockey: Big Ten Hockey Tournament-Michigan vs Ohio State
Thomas Bordeleau and the Michigan hockey team are off to a 4-0 start.
South Bend Tribune-USA TODAY NETWORK

By now you’re probably already aware of it — the Michigan Wolverines’ hockey team, after a memorable weekend in Duluth in which they beat two of last season’s Frozen Four teams, is the No. 1 team in the country.

The Wolverines received 45 of 50 first-place votes atop the USCHO.com Division I Poll while garnering all 34 first-place votes in the USA Hockey rankings. The last time Michigan topped both national polls was in Oct. 2011.

On raw talent alone, there’s not a team in the country that can match the Wolverines and their four top-5 NHL Draft picks. But with such youth — and after an inconsistent 2020-21 season — they were slotted third in the preseason rankings.

To be ranked anything higher than that, Michigan was going to have to prove it on the ice; prove that it was more than a loose confederation of stars. That’s exactly what the Wolverines have done so far.

On offense, the numbers are absolutely eye-popping. Michigan’s scored 21 goals in four games, including six and seven-goal outbursts against Lake Superior State and a 5-1 win over Minnesota Duluth. The Wolverines scored just three goals in their win over Minnesota State, but considering the Mavericks’ All-American goaltender, Dryden McKay, each goal essentially counts for double.

Michigan is second in the country in scoring and ninth in shots on goal per game at 33.5, In terms of converting on its chances, there’s no one better. The Wolverines’ shooting percentage sits at 15.7 percent. Not only does that lead the country, it’s especially significant for a team that’s been bad-to-mediocre at putting away pucks in recent years. (They were tied for 40th in 2018-19, tied for 42nd in 2019-20 and 21st out of 51 teams last season.)

Six Wolverines are averaging at least a point per game, led by sophomore forward Brendan Brisson’s five goals and three assists. Sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau has scored two goals with five assists, sophomore defenseman Owen Power has a goal and five assists and sophomore forward Kent Johnson’s at one and four, respectively.

All four of Michigan’s lines have shown an ability to score. In fact, third and fourth-liners such as Michael Pastujov, Jimmy Lambert and Luke Morgan keyed the Wolverines’ come-from-behind win over Lake Superior State in their second game of the season.

Pastujov, who scored twice in that game, was moved up to join Bordeleau and Brisson against Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State. Whatever line Bordeleau and Brisson have been on has been Michigan’s best, even outshining the unit of Kent Johnson, Matty Beniers and Mackie Samoskevich, who have been together for every game so far.

It’s hard to find many complaints as far as defense goes. In hockey, the best defense is often a strong offense that controls the flow of the game, and the Wolverines’ Corsi For percentage at even strength is 57.9%, which ranks 10th in the country. Corsi takes approximates a team’s possession by measuring shot attempt differentials, and as you would expect, the Wolverines are solid at maintaining possession. They’ll seldom relinquish their own zone for long stretches.

When they do, however, Erik Portillo has proven more than capable of filling Strauss Mann’s big skates. The 6-foot-6 sophomore netminder has posted a save percentage of .929 in four games, allowing eight goals on 113 shots. That compares well with Mann’s .930 percentage from last season, and just 10 teams nationally stop shots at a better rate.

Michigan’s power play is where you might most expect a team with seven first-round NHL draft picks to shine, with more space for Beniers, Bordeleau, Brisson, Johnson and Power to slice, dice and shoot. The Wolverines have found the net on seven of their 14 power plays this season, and while the figure itself is clearly unsustainable, the leading-the-nation aspect of it isn’t.

Really, the only major weakness uncovered through four games has been the Wolverines’ penalties. They’ve taken 26, resulting in 22 opposing power plays and at least five in each game so far. In players like Pastujov, Garrett Van Wyhe and Nolan Moyle, Michigan has players able and willing to get their hands dirty, and it’s resulted in a penalty kill percentage of .864, which would have been a top 10 figure nationally last season. But there’s a line between aggressive and undisciplined play that no team can afford to cross, the Wolverines being no exception.

I’ve just thrown a lot of statistics at you, but don’t worry. Here’s where we get to the upshot of all of this.

If the rest of this season progresses in a similar fashion to past Mel Pearson teams, it’s going to end on April 9, 2022 at the TD Garden in Boston with the Wolverines celebrating their 10th national championship in program history.

It might not be close, either.

Pearson’s Michigan squads have a habit of coming together late in the season. They did so in his first year, where they won nine out of their final 11 games to burst from the NCAA Tournament bubble all the way to the Frozen Four. In 2019-20, they might very well have done the same after a 7-2-1 finish to the regular season.

In every season but one, Pearson’s Wolverines have put up a substantially better record after their December break. Never have they so much as begun the month of January with a winning record, actually. In its four seasons under Pearson, Michigan has gone 24-29-8 pre-break and 44-26-7 afterwards.

These are teams that have taken a while to gel and find the best versions of themselves. With the level of individual brilliance on the 2021-22 outfit — too many cooks in the kitchen, however you want to phrase it — it was reasonable to suspect that this would be even more true. So far, it’s been anything but.

There is last season’s Michigan team, which began 4-0 with a road sweep at then-No. 14 Wisconsin before dropping five out of its next six. The Wolverines’ next big series isn’t until December, when No. 4 Minnesota comes to Yost Ice Arena, so their slate of games ahead is manageable. But over the next few weeks, they’ll do well to understand that what they accomplished last weekend in Duluth was only the beginning.

Michigan shouldn’t be considered overwhelming national title favorites after just four games. But if the Wolverines can merely maintain their current level of play, it won’t be long now. It’s even more terrifying to think about what might be if they have any room to improve — and history tells us they almost certainly do.