The Michigan hockey team earned its first sweep at Yost Ice Arena this year, dispatching of Northern Michigan over the weekend, and now moves on to a quarterfinal series at Western Michigan. Can the Wolverines vanquish the Broncos and keep this fairytale alive?
Will Michigan advance to Joe Louis Arena for a 24th consecutive semifinals appearance?
Certainly the Maize and Blue's prospects look promising, much more than they did four weeks ago prior to this 5-0-1 run. But while Michigan has momentum and won't show the rust of a weekend off that could befall the Broncos, Western Michigan is no small roadblock.
WMU went 3-1 against U-M this season, scoring 3.00 goals per game while holding Michigan to 1.50. And defense is the bread and butter of this Western team; the Broncos rank third nationally in allowing 1.92 goals per contest, its sophomore netminder, Frank Slubowski, posting a .922 save percentage on the year.
If this series boils down to defense and winning close 2-1 or 3-2 games, Michigan wouldn't have stood a chance just a month ago when its netminders were yielding 3.63 goals against, but in the past six games, freshman Steve Racine has allowed only 12 total markers and has a .923 save percentage. U-M's defense has also stiffened.
The Wolverines' road record is still an abysmal 3-8-2 but Michigan did sweep Ohio State in its most recent series away from Yost Ice Arena Feb. 22-23 and earned such much-needed road confidence.
Michigan's NCAA aspirations will live to see another day, but expect this weekend's quarterfinal series to go three games.
What has keyed the rise of U-M's dormant special teams?
Michigan scored multiple power-play goals in back-to-back games for only the second time all season and the first time in a series with two tallies Friday and two Saturday. Overall, U-M finished 4 for 7 (57.1 percent) after entering play converting just 16.7 percent of their chances.
There is no one explanation for their success. The Maize and Blue said Saturday that they've gone back to basics - quick passing, lots of movement, and unleashing a bevy of shots instead of looking for the tic-tac-toe goal that is often a unit's undoing.
Michigan's defensemen are taking more point shots, and if there is one area to focus on, that may be it. Blue liners Mac Bennett and Jon Merrill both scored man-advantage markers with heavy slapshots from just inside the blue line while Jacob Trouba's blast Friday caromed out to forward Kevin Lynch for an easy rebound tally.
It is easy to get sucked into looking for the pretty goal or the backdoor goal when you have the extra skater, but consistently power-play goals come off deflections out front, rebounds, or when the goalie is screened. Featuring a defensive corps with terrific shots, Michigan may have finally figured out its strength with the man advantage.
Whose play has helped turn this season around?
Though he finished with only two assists during an eight-goal weekend, sophomore left winger Phil Di Giuseppe was, arguably, the best player on the ice in the sweep of the Wildcats.
A second-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2012, Di Giuseppe had a modest rookie year, tallying 26 points on 11 goals and 15 assists. He battled a 14-game scoring slump but was optimistic he'd become a more consistent offensive contributor this season.
In some ways, he has. He's never gone more than four games without notching a point, and has at least one point in 18 of 36 games, but he's again failed to light the lamp with regularity, netting just eight goals all year while enduring slumps of four games (twice) and 13 games.
On Friday and Saturday, though, no one skated harder and no one created more scoring opportunities for linemates Boo Nieves and Kevin Lynch. With his left-handed shot and smooth skating, Di Giuseppe even looked Jeff Tambellini-esque.
The CCHA Rookie of the Year in 2003, Tambellini scored 10 goals and had 13 assists in 20 career postseason contests, and was dominant as a junior with six goals and four helpers in six games. It's that Tambellini that skated circles around Alaska and Ohio State in the conference semifinals and finals in 2005 that Di Giuseppe looked like against Northern.
Though the best player, he's not alone in raising his game to new heights. The fact is, almost everyone is, which is why Michigan is winning.