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March 18, 2013

Three questions: Will Michigan win the CCHA?

The Michigan hockey team continues to defy the odds, sweeping Western Michigan in a quarterfinal playoff series to advance to the CCHA semifinals. Will the Wolverines secure the two wins they need to make the NCAA Tournament? We discuss in today's three questions.

What's gotten in to Michigan's penalty kill? Like everything else, the Wolverines struggled on special teams for most of the year, ranking among the worst PK units in the country as they killed off just 82.4 percent of their opponents' power plays in the first 30 games. However, over the past eight contests, with U-M 7-0-1 during that stretch, Michigan is operating at a .939 clip.

In four playoff games, the Maize and Blue are even perfect, stifling five Northern Michigan chances March 8-9 and nine Western Michigan man-advantage opportunities March 15-16.

So what gives? Effort, intensity and a willingness to sell out to disrupt an offensive-zone possession. Michigan's forwards seem to be pressuring the point more consistently and vigorously, taking the opponents out of their comfort zone in forcing quicker-than-desired passes. U-M's defensemen also aren't getting cute behind the net - they're grabbing the puck and firing it along the boards, usually to a successful clear.

It helps that a number of unsung Wolverines have embraced their role as penalty killers - sophomores Zach Hyman, Travis Lynch and Andrew Sinelli have been outstanding defensively. Offensively, they have combined for just 10 goals all year, including three during U-M's eight-game unbeaten streak (though Sinelli had the game-winner at Western on Saturday), so they've taken pride in becoming a force on the penalty kill.

Effort goes a long way, though, and right now, Michigan is bringing it. Players are diving 'superman' style to slap a puck across the blue line and out of the zone. They're digging into their skates for leverage along the boards and grinding in the deep corners, fighting with everything they have to end a threat. That type of commitment wasn't there for much of the season, but couldn't have come at a better time.

What will Jacob Trouba do for an encore? A finalist for two awards (to be announced Friday) - the CCHA Rookie of the Year and the CCHA's Best Offensive Defenseman - Trouba has three goals and an assist in four playoff contests so far, and has been a big reason why the Wolverines are streaking, notching the game-winning goal in a 4-3 win over Western Michigan last Friday among two he scored that night.

Trouba's 12 tallies are the most by a Michigan freshman defender since Dean Turner had a rookie blue-line record 13 in 1977. Trouba's 27 points, meanwhile, are third among U-M first-year defensemen, and he has a very real chance to equal or surpass Jack Johnson's record of 32 points in 2006 if the Maize and Blue make the NCAA Tournament.

Trouba has been a beast all year, probably the most consistent Wolverine from October thru now. He is a physical force, but he's also played strong defense, especially since being paired with Mac Bennett over the last nine games. Offensively, there is no stopping his wicked slap shot or a wrister he unleashed over the weekend that will beat NHL goalies soon enough.

The 6-2, 195-pounder is a marked man on the power play as evidenced by the way the Broncos shadowed his every move, but even then, the great ones find a way to make something happen, and that's what he is doing.

On Saturday, in a matchup with Miami, Trouba has to be a plus player for the Maize and Blue to win. That doesn't mean he has to score - though it couldn't hurt - but if he continues to play solid in his own zone and contributes to offensive success, Michigan wins.

Will Michigan beat Miami, win the CCHA finals and make the NCAA Tournament? At this point, it's hard to see them not winning it all, but the RedHawks are not an easy foe. Miami was the conference's regular-season champion for a reason, and won't be trembling in its boots as it awaits the streaking Wolverines.

Enrico Blasi is one of the most confident coaches in the game, and like Michigan State's Mark Dantonio in football, he's always looking to stick it to the Maize and Blue, feeling some disrespect was lobbed his way even if no such thing occurred.

The one thing Michigan has not faced in these playoffs, and over its last six games, is a deficit. The Wolverines have grabbed a lead in each contest, and it remains to be seen how they would react if they were to fall behind early. Perhaps the adversity U-M has experienced all year would allow the Maize and Blue to overcome, but we don't know, and that first goal Saturday becomes all-important, as it always is.

Michigan can win the CCHA. It has the momentum and, more importantly, is playing really good hockey presently, which is what it will take, but don't expect it to be easy. U-M wins two nail-biters and I see all of you in Grand Rapids for the NCAA West Regional March 29-30.





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