Monday, March 12, 2007

G-B-U: Michigan

After five months of Wildcat hockey, the team from Northern Michigan University hit the end of the road this past weekend, finding their fate in Ann Arbor.

The Wildcats earned a best-of-three series with the Michigan Wolverines after an upset victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes (2-6, 3-2, 3-2) and they looked to carry some of that momentum into lower Michigan.

After dropping the first game, 4-1, Northern entered Saturday's contest with their backs against the wall. An absolute explosion from the Wolverine offense, sent the Wildcats packing, though, and Michigan won game two, 8-3.

The Good

1) TJ Hensick

TJ Hensick is, quite honestly, the best hockey player that I have seen all year. It has been said here in the past that although Mike Santorelli can score so well, he would be a much better hockey player if he could pass and set people up.

Hensick is that player. Not only can he control the puck while bobbing and weaving through defenders and seem to score almost effortlessly, but he is a brilliant set-up man. Every time he gets the puck on the wing, he is somehow able to direct a beautiful pass through the slot. This may explain why he has 42 assists in 38 games and why his linemates have combined for 37 goals in that time.

To top it off, Hensick picked up a hat trick on Saturday night, bumping his season goal total to 20. In his last game in Ann Arbor, Hensick, who has 62 points on the year, skated off the ice to chants of 'Hobey Baker'.

I wouldn't be surprised.

2) Brian Stewart

The frshman Stewart made the start on Friday night, giving up three goals in 17 minutes. After the third goal, though, Stewie played better than I have seen him play all season (granted, I wasn't in Columbus last weekend).

Maybe it just takes him 20 minutes to get warmed up.

He made numerous acrobatic kick saves and put his body on the line more than once and for the game, he faced 37 shots and allowed just the three goals.

He came into Saturday's game about halfway through and finished it out. His Saturday performance wasn't as sharp, but he got hung out to dry on a couple of those goals, as well.

During the past two weeks, Stewart was playing not just for playoff success, but most likely for a job next season, too. With Zaniboni's departure, the goaltending situation will be slightly muddled for NMU and Stewart, Derek Janzen and
Ian Keserich could all compete for the starting role.

3) NMU Power-play

It's a little ridiculous to bring it up at this point, I know, but on Saturday the Wildcats went 3-5 on the power-play. Every NMU goal came with an advantage and that's something that the 'Cats haven't had all season.

The Bad

1) The NMU Offense

In this case, the best defense was a good offense for the Wolverines. For the weekend, they out-scored the Wildcats 12-4 and out-shot them 65-41. They managed to score four goals on the weekend.

The one aspect of the Wildcat offense that did seem to work was the aforementioned power-play. On a whole, though, the offense struggled greatly against what was thought to be a sub-par Michigan defense.

2) Billy Sauer

I hear people saying that Wolverine netminder Billy Sauer played well over the weekend and that he did his part to push them to the Joe.

This is a lie.

I understand that Sauer was not tested heavily in the series and that UM won both games. He stopped 35 of 39 shots (.897 SV%) over the weekend, but was only put in a position to make a big play around three to four times. He might have done it once.

At one point on Saturday night, Sauer had allowed two goals on five shots.

He finished out the night stopping 14 of 17 (.82 SV%), but Saturday should have been the best night for the goalie. It was game two of the conference quarterfinals and his team was attempting to end another team's season. That is a scenario when a goalie should step up.

The good news for Sauer, however, is that A) he has improved consistently since the beginning of the season when he was, honestly, terrible and that B) the Michigan offense is so disgustingly powerful that they may be able to carry Sauer for a period of time.

They will reach a point, though (namely the NCAA Tournament), when he will likely be relied upon to provide something that he cannot.

The Ugly

1) Saturday Night

When the NMU Wildcats took the ice on Saturday night, they were hoping to keep up with the nation's most prolific offense. For the first 2:30 of the game, Northern controlled the play and the contest was tied.

And although Michigan controlled the pace of play for the majority of the first period, the game was still within reach when Santorelli netted one at the 2:33 mark of the second (score: 4-2).

That's when it got bad.

The Wolverines tagged on another goal and then NMU took three penalties within 1:30, giving Michigan a 5-on-3 advantage, which they promptly exploited for a goal.

Down by four goals near the end of that middle period, the Wildcats seemed as though they were almost skating the time out, just waiting for that trip to the locker room. Michigan scored again at the 19:37 mark of the second.

I understand that it had to be disheartening for those guys to get gutted like that in what turned out to be their final game of 2006-2007, but the fact that they let it show so much is what surprised me.

To their (and the coaching staff's) benefit, they came out in the third with much more fire.

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