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March 3, 2014

Analysis: Michigan's NCAA hockey hope remain alive

Will they or won't they? That is the question. With four games remaining in the regular season, Michigan sits 12th in the venerable Pairwise Rankings … still in the NCAA Tournament field but too close to the bubble to feel good about its current lot.

"It's a convoluted, algebraic formula that can be difficult to predict, and at the end of the day, winning is all that matters, and that's all Michigan controls," TheWolverine.com analyst Noah Ruden said.

"But you don't want to be in a position this late in the year where you're worried about how any one game is going to affect you. You want to be a team that is secure going into the Big Ten Tournament no matter what happens.

"The good news is that having Minnesota, the No. 1 team in the country, at home the last two games of the season [March 14-15], if Michigan wins one or both games, those are significant wins that could really put them in a spot where they can rest easy going into the conference tournament."

The good news is that the Wolverines remain very much in the hunt for an NCAA berth, and a 2-2 record over their final four regular-season contests - U-M plays Michigan State in a home-and-home this weekend - as long as one win comes against the Gophers, likely puts the Maize and Blue in the postseason.

The bad news is that Michigan remains largely inconsistent, and there is no guarantee U-M can even beat Minnesota after being swept by the Maroon and Gold in Minneapolis Feb. 14-15 (by a combined score of 9-4).

"I don't think we're a middle-of-the-road team; we're just inconsistent," said Ruden, a former goalie for Michigan. "Look at some of the teams we've beaten and where they're ranked, and that's proof that when we're playing our best, we can beat the best.

"It's just a matter of having all three pieces - defense, forwards and goaltending - peaking at the same time, and we're not getting that.

"We've had goaltending breakdowns, the offense sputtering or freshmen playing like freshmen. We just haven't clicked since the first half of the season and when only one or two facets are clicking you see a middle-of-the-pack team. When all three are, you see a top-caliber team. And we see it for a period, for a game, but not for an entire weekend."

After another up and down weekend, including a 2-2 tie (and shootout loss), the only thing consistent about this team (at least over the last two months) is its inconsistency. Michigan allowed five goals on 63 shots (.921 save percentage), but untimely goals again robbed the Wolverines of a sweep.

The defense continues to suffer lapses in judgment, decision-making and execution, leading to the inexcusable turnovers deep in U-M's own zone, while the forwards are burying far too few of their best looks.

"The timing of these breakdowns are more frustrating than the actual breakdowns," Ruden said. "It's like they lose focus, and the way hockey is, when your shift is 30-45 seconds, there's no excuse for losing focus. That has to change.

"You don't know if guys like [forwards] Alex Guptill and Phil Di Giuseppe are going to show up and get the five or six points they had over the weekend. You're not sure if you're going to get the goalkeeping from Zach Nagelvoort and Steve Racine that at the beginning of the season made them two of the best goalies in the country or the guys that in the second half are giving up about three goals per game.

"You're just not sure what you're getting night after night, or even period to period, and with [senior captain] Mac Bennett out for at least a little while, one of our main leaders is not in the lineup and you need that leadership at this point in the season to help bring it all together."

All is not lost; Ruden was happy with the way the team played Sunday in a 4-3 win, scoring three power-play goals, while Racine came up big for the Maize and Blue with 34 saves on 37 shots (.919 save percentage).

The Wolverines need to build off the momentum of yesterday's victory and sweep a Spartan team that is 1-5-4 in its last 10 in building the confidence Michigan will need to topple Minnesota. Do that, going at least 3-1 down the stretch, and U-M should be resting comfortably heading into the Big Ten Tournament March 20.

"No matter what happens, they control their own destiny," Ruden said. "Red Berenson will never allow the players or his coaching staff to blame anybody else if they don't make NCAAs.

"If they win these next two weekends, all the speculation goes away, and they're in, and I'm interested to see how the team responds knowing that."

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