Michigan earned a series sweep for the first time all year when it knocked off its rival Michigan State 3-2 Friday and 5-2 Saturday behind timely scoring and the goaltending of Jared Rutledge. Has the freshman seized the job? We discuss in this week's Three Questions.
Can Rutledge backstop the Maize and Blue to a necessary winning streak?
Rutledge turned aside 92.2 percent of the shots he faced, producing the kind of save percentage numbers typical of the best netminders in college hockey.
It wasn't a perfect weekend for the rookie - he did allow two soft goals out of the four surrendered - but he played well enough, and seemed to grow in confidence with each period. It helped that his teammates didn't suffer as many colossal mental lapses as they had in past weeks, stepping up in front of him.
Rutledge didn't earn the job with his exploits in practice last week as much as he assumed the post by default, a source told TheWolverine.com, noting that it had become clear to the coaches that junior Adam Janecyk and freshman Steve Racine weren't the answer and didn't possess the intangibles to become the "hot" goalie the Maize and Blue need if they have any shot of winning the CCHA Tournament.
Rutledge hadn't given any indication he was capable of such either, but with nothing to lose, he was afforded the chance. Will he continue to run with it? He does have talent, and with some of that confidence he gleaned, he could put it together just enough to give Michigan a fighting chance. He still doesn't appear to be the long-term answer, though, so U-M will continue to recruit in this class and the next to bring someone else in.
Has defenseman Jon Merrill found his sea legs?
The MSU series represented Merrill's ninth and 10th games (including an exhibition) since returning from a cracked vertebra that sidelined him for the first half of the season. His effort in his first eight games? Lackluster.
The junior, known for his cunning offensive prowess and chess-game defensive instincts, hadn't made much of a contribution on either side of the ice, chipping in with just three assists while accumulating a plus/minus of -2. He seemed to fall into the immediate funk that has plagued his teammates all year.
This past weekend, paired with sophomore Brennan Serville after the much-hyped duo of Merrill and freshman Jacob Trouba essentially failed - they were a combined -5 in seven games together - the junior began to show the skill set that makes him a likely offseason departure for the NHL. Merrill was stronger and smarter in his own zone, and created offense for his teammates with accurate passing and the crafty thinking only he is capable of.
A year ago when he missed the first half of the year, Merrill stepped into the lineup seamlessly after benefiting from a stint at the World Juniors. This year, he didn't have the same luxury, and head coach Red Berenson said it would take Merrill some time to readjust to the game. Perhaps that's all we saw initially, and what we'll see going forward is the player he can be. Michigan sure hopes so.
Can Michigan catch lightning in a bottle after its sweep?
On the surface, it would appear Michigan will return to earth this weekend when it travels to South Bend to take on Notre Dame, but the Fighting Irish are scuffling, going 1-6-1 in their last eight games, allowing 3.50 goals per contest during that stretch while scoring only 2.38. ND is, potentially, ripe for the taking if U-M raises its game because last weekend's effort won't beat a top team.
For any fan holding out the slimmest of hopes that the Wolverines can get going, this will be the litmus test. Michigan has real momentum for the first time perhaps all year, and even though U-M is headed out on the road, it faces a struggling opponent. If the Maize and Blue are to have any chance, any chance of putting together a magical run, this is a weekend it has to have.