In the midst of your Jordan Poole-related euphoria, Michigan Hockey had its Selection Sunday last week and while the fate of the team as a tournament squad was already sealed, the Wolverines learned of their destination: Worcester, MA. And first round opponent: the Northeastern Huskies. And the date: 4:30 pm today. So, with that information, it’s time to break it down.
The Opponent: #3 seed Northeastern Huskies, 23-9-5
The Huskies find themselves in the NCAA Tournament for the 2nd time in three seasons, making it in 2016 only to lose to a really talented North Dakota team. Northeastern is also making their 6th NCAA Tournament appearance overall, and will try to make their second Frozen Four, having made it previously in 1982. This season the Huskies had an impressive campaign, winning their most games since 2009 and finishing 2nd in the Hockey East standings, losing in the semifinals of the conference tournament. But that showing was good enough to earn them a bid into the Big Dance and the right to play Michigan on Saturday.
An initial on-paper assessment could lead some to believe that Northeastern is a hockey superpower, having allowed the 4th fewest goals while scoring the 4th most. Yet, it’s not all it seems, as they are a very middling possession team. While Michigan is at 51.3% in Corsi For % (a measure of puck possession) at even strength, Northeastern is at 49%, putting the Huskies 15th out of 16 teams in the field. In “Close” situations, where the teams are tied or within 1 goal, Michigan is at 52.9%, while Northeastern is all the way down at 48.6%. So, how did Northeastern have such a good season if they don’t possess the puck more than their opponent in even strength or in close games? The answer is a lethal power play converting at 27.2% (#3 in college hockey) and stemming from that, two players in particular: Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura. Those two have combined for 113 points and they are #1 and #3, respectively, in all of college hockey in scoring. Those two players that anchor the top line are the heart and soul of the Northeastern Huskies, and Nolan Stevens is also a factor, with 41 points of his own. Those three combined for 75 of Northeastern’s 134 goals on the season. Quite frankly, if you shut down the top line, you shut down the whole team offensively.
In that way, Northeastern sort of resembles 2016 Michigan Hockey, when the Compher-Connor-Motte line put up ridiculous stats and carried the team. However, a difference is the goaltending, with Northeastern having a really, really good netminder who makes up for their puck possession issues defensively. His name is Cayden Primeau, former NHLer Keith Primeau’s son, finishing 6th in college hockey in save percentage (.932) and goals against average (1.88). Overall, the Huskies are no joke and are a formidable opponent. A win on Saturday would be a very good win.
Keys to the Game:
- Stay out of the box: this can’t really be said enough, but Michigan’s only big weakness is such a weakness that it will almost definitely cause their demise if they are bounced from the tournament. If Michigan had been able to stay out of the box, or have a functional penalty kill against Ohio State in the Big Ten Semifinals, then they probably would’ve been playing for the title last week. As it is, Michigan has the 4th worst penalty kill and Northeastern has the 3rd best power play. That’s a recipe for disaster. Michigan cannot take penalties. Ever.
- Big performance from Hayden Lavigne, please: Throughout January and February, Hayden Lavigne stood on his head, with the sophomore goalie showing his true potential, stealing a few games and ensuring Michigan made it back to the NCAA Tournament. But then he let in a few unnecessary goals against Arizona State and was shaky against Wisconsin. While he bounced back in the most recent contest against Ohio State, Michigan needs Lavigne to be sharp. The defense will make mistakes and will need him to bail them out at times. And as it’s said, the best penalty killer is your goaltender and Lavigne may have to come up huge in PK situations.
- Can someone on Michigan shut down the Northeastern top line? If all the production comes from the top line, then silencing it will be a high priority. I’m not sure what Coach Mel Pearson will choose to do, but it needs to be effective. The DMC line was dominant against Ohio State and they could go with that, or perhaps the speed of Slaker-Norris-random winger replacing Lockwood on the second line will be the decision. But if Michigan can keep clean from the box and find an effective counterattack to the Husky scoring line, I like the Wolverines’ chances overall, since they are a better team in 5-on-5.
Other opponents in the region:
So let’s say for a second that the Wolverines beat Northeastern, who will they have to topple to punch their ticket to the Frozen Four in St. Paul? The winner of #1 seed Cornell vs. #4 seed Boston University. While Cornell is the higher seed, I think Michigan would probably rather face the Big Red than the Terriers of Boston. The reason is that Cornell seems a lot like Notre Dame, a team Michigan matched up very well with during the regular season. Cornell also has a really good netminder (Matthew Galajda), like Notre Dame (Cale Morris), but they also play rather unimpressive and defensive hockey. They also have rather lackluster possession numbers, possessing it less than Michigan at even strength and in close situations, and unlike Northeastern, they don’t have a great power play (17.2%). They’re actually the lowest scoring team in the NCAA Tournament, but they accomplish that by also being the team that gave up the fewest goals by far. That type of close-game, non-possession hockey is one Michigan is suited for.
On the flip side, Boston University has a lot of NHL talent, yet only eked into the tournament by winning the Hockey East tournament. Their numbers are really boring and middling. A good but not great power play, good but not great possession numbers, they score a fair number of goals but also aren’t great defensively. There are no glaring weakness but also no glaring strengths. But their talent level is equivalent to and probably higher than Michigan’s, which is why I’d opt to face Cornell over Boston in the end.
So if I wrap it all up, I’m going to make the bold statement that Michigan’s tougher game by far is the first round matchup with Northeastern. If the Wolverines can get past the Huskies, I think they’re going to the Frozen Four. When you look at just the raw numbers, Northeastern appears to be the best team in the Northeast Regional, and indeed, 5 of ESPN’s 7 pundits have Northeastern winning the regional and going to the Frozen Four. The other 2 have Boston U! So basically, Michigan’s dream is to escape Northeastern and then get Cornell on Sunday. I’m not going to predict what’s going to happen because singular college hockey games are far too random but I do think there is a chance that Michigan makes it to St. Paul. There’s also a solid chance they get bounced on Saturday, and that’s okay too, since this squad has already far exceeded expectations. But hey, if they get to the Frozen Four, there’s a good chance Notre Dame will be waiting for them, and given how they’ve matched up with the Irish this year, that ain’t a bad thing. Regardless, it’ll be fun to watch.
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