After a summer's worth of talk and speculation and prognostication, last Saturday's game between Ferris State and Michigan was the first real data point as we spend the next six months trying to determine which teams are the nation's best. It's only one game out of what will be a very large number, but it is a significant one. National polls had Michigan and Ferris State ranked 8th/9th respectively. I had both teams ranked slightly lower , but still close in the 10th to 15th range.
So how much should Ferris State's 4-3 win on Saturday change expectations for both teams? The nature of Saturday's game makes it a bit difficult to draw a lot of conclusions. When Ferris State went up 2-0 in the game's first two minutes, and then had a 3-0 lead after the first period, it definitely changed the strategy for both teams. Ferris State spent the last two periods trying to protect that lead, while Michigan was much more aggressive trying to get back into the game. There's still some conclusions we draw from the game though.
I was a bit more down on Ferris State's team coming into the season than many others. I was one of the few people not to rank them in the top two in the WCHA. That said, it was hard not to be impressed with how Ferris State played on Saturday. My big concern with the Bulldogs coming into the year was finding enough offense to replace Garrett Thompson and Cory Kane. That obviously wasn't a problem on Saturday. What really impressed me about their offense was how good the Bulldogs were in transition, and how efficient they were at turning little mistakes by Michigan into big mistakes.
Their first goal, twenty-seven seconds into the game is a beautiful example of that. Michigan makes two relatively small mistakes here. First, freshman Dexter Dancs makes a bad turnover at the attacking blue line. Ideally, when he gets the puck in that position, he makes a play to keep possession, or at worst, puts the puck deep into the offensive zone. Instead, he panics a bit under pressure and turns the puck over to the Ferris State defenseman. Not a good play, but he's a freshman in his first collegiate shift, so it's understandable. Meanwhile, a Michigan defenseman sees Dancs with the puck and tries to make a quick change. Off the turnover, Ferris State transitions so quickly that they make two quick passes and they've got a breakaway before the Michigan defender can get into position.
All four Ferris State goals come off quick transitions from offense to defense. If they can continue to attack teams like that, and make them pay for mistakes, they'll score plenty of goals.
The other factor I may have undervalued on Ferris State's team is CJ Motte. There's no doubt Motte put up outstanding numbers last season, but like Ferris State as a team, his numbers weren't all that spectacular against NCAA tournament-caliber teams last year. Of course, it's too early to assume Michigan is an NCAA tournament team this year(like we all did last year when FSU tied Michigan), but Motte was a difference-maker on Saturday. His save on his younger brother late in the second period that led to Ferris State's fourth goal was a game-changer, and maybe changes the way we look at Ferris State's season come late March.
I still like Michigan Tech quite a bit(they handled business about as expected against a rebuilding Lake Superior State team last weekend), and still think Minnesota State is the class of the WCHA, but Ferris State looks good enough to be in the conversation for NCAA tournament the entire year.
For Michigan, I don't have too many concerns about their offense.After getting knocked back on their heels in the first period, they ended the night with three goals against a very stout defense and had some great chances to get a fourth. You know they're going to get production out of Andrew Copp and JT Compher. Dylan Larkin looked as expected. Tyler Motte is going to create havoc for other teams. That group should be fine.
The defense was the really big worry coming into the season, and Saturday's performance didn't necessarily quell those concerns. I will say that looking back at the pucks that ended up in Michigan's net, it's tough to blame them all on Michigan's defense. The first two goals are pretty much the direct result of bad turnovers by forwards(though the scoring chance early in the sequence on the second goal came from a turnover by a defenseman in his own zone).
The third goal is just kind of baffling as to what the two defensemen were doing. It looks like they just lost track of Maloney and let him get behind them. And on the fourth goal, the Michigan defenseman takes a bad angle and misses a check creating a 2-on-1 for Ferris State, with the one defenseman back actually a forward playing on the point on the power play. The forward plays the 2-on-1 about as well as you'd expect.
So overall, not very good, but maybe not as tragic as it initially looked. There's still plenty of room for improvement on the defensive end, and a couple guys back there that are young enough that they might still develop. The defense looked a little more active on the offensive end of the ice too, even though only Zach Werenski and Brennan Serville showed up on the scoresheet with secondary assists. If the defensemen can produce a little more offensively, that should help negate a few of the mistakes they make.
To bring this all back to the beginning, how much does Saturday change expectations for each team? If I had to judge, I'd say the other pollsters got it right and I got it wrong in regards to Ferris State being a top ten team, while I was closer than they were in projecting Michigan as kind of a bubble team to make the NCAA tournament.
This game proved that Ferris State is still Ferris State. There's not going to be much, if any drop-off from where they were last season; a real credit to head coach Bob Daniels and his coaching staff after what they lost. For Michigan, I'm inclined not to penalize them too heavily for the loss. A full Ewigleben Arena is an incredibly difficult place to play, and a lot of good teams would take losses there(in a theoretical world where good teams regularly played non-conference road games). The defense may not be there yet, but there's enough positives that Michigan should hang around in NCAA tournament contention all season.