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Frozen Four Preview: Michigan

Gallery: Michigan at RPI October 24th 2015

Even as they are back in their first Frozen Four since 2011, I’m still not sure I believe this Michigan team is good. But thanks to some incredible coaching by Mel Pearson, this team has somehow been good enough. Now, they’re two wins away from a most improbable national championship, and have about as good a shot of it as any of the other three remaining teams.

Michigan sputtered through the first half of the season as most expected they would. But about midway through the season, things began to click under their first-year head coach. They took advantage of a moribund Minnesota team by sweeping the Gophers at Mariucci Arena and followed that up with a home sweep of Penn State. A sweep of Notre Dame after the Irish had already clinched the Big Ten title and taking care of business against bad Michigan State and Arizona State teams, gave Michigan enough juice in the computer rankings to comfortably earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament thanks to an unusually strong year for the Big Ten.

They’re a team that is kind of assembled with spare parts, but Mel Pearson has found a way to put them together in a way that works. They get the most out of what they have, and what they have just might be enough to win a national title this weekend.

Here is Michigan’s projected line chart. Top-50 NHL prospects are bolded. Other potential NHL prospects are in italics.

90 Dancs 20 Marody 17 Calderone

11 Warren 9 Norris 13 Slaker

21 Pastujov 91 Pastujov 8 Becker

22 Porikos 18 Winborg 12 Raabe

43 Hughes 33 Cecconi

5 Luce 74 Boka

6 Piazza 2 Martin

30 Lavigne

There is not a lot of depth to Michigan’s forward line-up, but they quietly have one of the better top lines in the country. That line is the definition of balance with Dancs as the big body that will do all the dirty work, Marody a speedy playmaker that can create scoring chances, and Calderone, who isn’t much of a 200-foot player, but has terrific finishing ability. Put these three on separate lines and they wouldn’t be nearly as effective, but they click really well together.

The second line is pretty effective too with three guys that play a very fast, heavy style of play. A year after being forced into the top line center role and being overwhelmed, Jake Slaker is much better this year in a secondary role. Josh Norris is a first round NHL Draft pick, and while he’s not a huge scorer, he plays a very responsible, mature game.

It gets ugly quick for the still-rebuilding team after that, but if Michigan can keep them matched up against the opposition’s lower lines, they shouldn’t be at too big of a disadvantage.

The blue line isn’t exactly elite for Michigan, but they do have a special player in freshman Quinn Hughes. Hughes is an incredible skater projected to go in the top 10 of this summer’s NHL Draft. He’s gotten better and better as the year has progressed to the point that he was outstanding in the regionals two weeks ago. He could play about 30 minutes per game this weekend, which not only makes Michigan better when he’s out there, but makes everyone else better by limiting what they have to do.

Cecconi is a big, boring defensive presence that is going to allow Hughes to freewheel with the puck when they’re on the ice together. Luce, Boka, and Martin all fit the same profile as former NTDP guys with pro-style frames that are about a half-step too slow and a bit turnover prone. Piazza is a strong puck-mover that can be reliable if his minutes are sheltered enough.

In goal, Hayden Lavigne emerged in the goaltending battle over Jack LaFontaine, and while he hasn’t been great, he’s been solid enough to give Michigan a chance to win.

Keys to the Weekend:

  1. Win the first line battle

If Michigan’s first line can outscore the opposition’s first opposition, they’ve got a great shot at beating anybody. If the top line isn’t generating offense, it’s unlikely to come from other sources.

2. Get lucky

Of the four teams playing this weekend, Michigan is probably the weakest, but not by a margin significant enough that it’s likely to show itself over the course of 60 minutes. They’re playing a Notre Dame team that isn’t likely to blow them out of the water. It should be a tight one-goal game throughout. It’s just a matter of getting the right bounce at the right time to make sure they get the extra goal.

3. Ride Hughes

The more time Quinn Hughes can spend on the ice, the better for Michigan. They’ll need him to log a lot of minutes and play the same great hockey he did in the regionals to have a chance. Michigan’s defense on the whole doesn’t match up anybody else this weekend, but Hughes is the most dynamic game-changer of the group and if he has a special weekend, that could be enough for Michigan.