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February 24, 2014

Analysis: Hockey split puts Michigan on NCAA bubble

The Michigan hockey team beat Penn State 5-2 Saturday night but the Wolverines are not a happy group this Monday, and for good reason after they blew a late lead and lost to the Nittany Lions Friday. The split further weakens U-M's NCAA Tournament hopes.

The good news is Michigan awoke this morning sitting 14th in the Pairwise Rankings, and still in position to make the NCAA Tournament with a guaranteed seven games remaining in the season (six regular-season contests and a Big Ten Tournament game). However, the Maize and Blue were 10th before the slip-up to the last-place Nittany Lions.

U-M entered the weekend seeking revenge after losing 4-0 to Penn State Feb. 8 - a win that marked the first in conference play for the Blue and White. Instead, Michigan suffered an even bigger humiliation in blowing a 3-1 lead, and then a 4-3 lead when it allowed a goal with just 4.6 seconds left in the third period, before losing at home to the Nittany Lions, who arrived in Ann Arbor 1-10-1 in league play.

"That was a nightmare," one source from inside Yost said after the game. "Absolutely embarrassing. No excuses. Just flat-out terrible."

While the coaches and players were irate - sophomore captain Andrew Copp kept repeating that the Wolverines' performance was "unacceptable" - they may have seen it coming based on an alarming trend that has plagued this team for too long.

Poor team defense.

Every week head coach Red Berenson and his assistants stress better defensive-zone coverage, but every week the issue is a determining factor. The fact is, this defense is far less talented than is typical of Berenson's teams; the early defections of Jon Merril (would-be senior), Jacob Trouba (sophomore) and Connor Carrick (sophomore) have created a talent void on the blue line that has been filled with middling skaters.

It hasn't helped that some of the more talented players have regressed.

"Honestly, there are four kids on the defense that should be really good, and only one is playing to his potential," the insider noted. "The freshmen are struggling, and even some of the veterans.

"It's been a constant source of frustration for the coaches because all week they work on changing habits and then in games, the kids panic and go right back to the bad habits that are leading to turnovers deep in the zone, and the second-chance opportunities that are ending up in the back of the net."

Goalie play has also been inconsistent. Look at the goals allowed in the last five games: four, five, four, five, and two (Michigan is 1-4-0). While the team defense has been bad, sophomore Steve Racine and freshman Zach Nagelvoort have not stolen a game for U-M.

"Early in the season, the goalies were playing really well, and covering up a lot of the deficiencies defensively, but they've both come back down to earth and with the chances we're giving up … every good shot is going in," the insider continued.

The byproduct of the slumping defense is that the Wolverines need more from their offense, and while they scored nine goals over the weekend, the Maize and Blue scored just four in their previous three games and are seemingly in a constant rut.

"It's the same thing with the forwards as with the defensemen, just too many guys underperforming," the source said.

"Early on in the season, there was such incredible chemistry and we were just finding a way to win, but you can't sustain that over an entire year. You need your best players to be your best players because those are the guys that keep the confidence up. But up front, and then especially on defense, a lot of our best players have gone through their own personal struggles, and it's affected the team's overall confidence."

Michigan did rebound from its loss to PSU for a solid 5-2 win Saturday, holding a lead throughout and dominating Penn State in shots 39-20, including a 22-6 second-period advantage, but those efforts have been far too few in recent weeks.

Going forward, this team needs to capitalize on its solid play and carry that over into this weekend's series against Ohio State. The Wolverines badly need a sweep.

"With eight games left, we sort of looked at it and thought 6-2 definitely gets us in the tournament, 5-3 probably did too as long as one of those losses wasn't to Penn State," the source noted. "Now, after two games, we're 1-1 and lost to Penn State.

"We can't really calculate what it will take, we just have to win."

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