Postseason defeats generally share a common thread – heads hanging low, a few tears, especially among seniors contemplating the end of their careers – but despite a 3-2 overtime defeat at Ohio State Saturday in a Big Ten Tournament semifinal, this party has only just begun for the Michigan hockey team.
The Wolverines fell from seventh to the 10th in the Pairwise rankings — a metric akin to the RPI in almost every other sport that ultimately determines the NCAA field. While conference tournament champions automatically receive berths in the 16-team NCAA field, any team in the top 12 of the Pairwise is a virtual lock when the tournament is announced March 18 at noon.
In other words, Michigan’s season is not yet over, and while a conference championship sure would have been a nice feather in the cap for the Maize and Blue’s first season under the direction of head coach Mel Pearson, U-M will soon be chasing bigger hardware.
The NCAA Tournament begins March 23 with the East and West regionals, and March 24 with the Northeast and Midwest, before culminating April 5-7 at the Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn., and to borrow a phrase from Jim Harbaugh, those inside Yost Ice Arena are asking ‘Why not us?’
Michigan fell to the fourth-ranked Buckeyes in Columbus Saturday night, but played, arguably, one of the best teams in the country to a standstill through 60 minutes, and had their chances to win late in the third.
Even as a likely 3-seed, U-M has the ingredients of an NCAA run:
• A goalie, in sophomore Hayden Lavigne, playing the best hockey of his career, with a .916 save percentage and an 8-2-1 record in his last 11 starts.
• A true No. 1 line featuring senior wingers Tony Calderone (23 goals) and Dexter Dancs (10 goals) with junior center Cooper Marody (14 goals and team highs in 32 and 46 points), capable of scoring on anyone, and just as importantly, capable of matching up with any other top line.
• A team committed to better defense in its own end of the rink (though admittedly prone to a few lapses here and there, like on OSU’s game-winner Saturday night).
• A savvy, veteran head coach with 23 NCAA experiences – two as a head coach with Michigan Tech and 21 as an assistant for the Maize and Blue.
• A wide-open NCAA Tournament field that has seen four different teams occupy the No. 1 poll position this year and 11 teams jockey for the top four poll slots this season.
And on the ice, anything goes, as at least one 3- or 4-seed has made the Frozen Four in four of the past five postseason campaigns, 4-seeded Providence and 4-seeded Yale winning the whole thing in 2015 and 2013, respectively.
Michigan doesn’t want to face the Buckeyes again, losing all five meetings to their rivals, and wouldn’t have to until the quarterfinals at least per NCAA rules – look for a new bracketology on USCHO.com later this week – but the Wolverines can hang with anyone, sweeping a Notre Dame team Feb. 16-18 that has been ranked No. 1 five weeks this year and is currently second in the Pairwise Rankings.
The NCAA Tournament, like on the hardcourt, is unpredictable, davids slaying goliaths, hot teams going home immediately, and there are no promises of a fairytale ending even if the last few weeks for Michigan hockey have felt like a Hallmark story.
Michigan, in fact, has some weaknesses, largely down a man, where the Wolverines rank 57th nationally (among 60 teams) in killing penalties at just 75.3 percent, and were done in by their penalty kill again this weekend, ceding two goals on four chances to the Buckeyes.
Michigan’s third and fourth lines, meanwhile, have contributed the odd goal here and there but among the six forwards that saw the ice last night, have scored just 23 goals total this season, and are not as talented as most of the third and fourth lines U-M will see in the NCAA Tournament.
If the Wolverines lose in their first game, poor special teams or a lack of depth will likely be the culprit, but as we sit here waiting seven days for the NCAA Tournament field to be announced, how exciting it is to contemplate the possibilities of a win, two, who knows – maybe a miracle run just like Providence and Yale enjoyed.
No one expected Michigan to make the NCAA Tournament in Pearson’s first year, not after a disaster season that saw Red Berenson retire following 33 years behind the bench. Not with a roster among the least talented to wear the winged helmet in 3+ decades. Not with unproven goalies and no returning goal-scoring commodities, and certainly not when U-M entered the second half of the season 8-8-2 with a 3-5-2 conference mark.
Oh, what joy it has been since then, a sweep at Minnesota for the first time since the 1970s; another home sweep of Penn State in mid-January to give the program its first four-game winning streak since the 2015-16 season; vanquishing the Spartans for a third time; another sweep of Arizona State on Senior Weekend; and the first postseason victories at Yost Ice Arena since 2012-13 when U-M dispatched Wisconsin March 2-3.
With at least one NCAA game remaining, and a program that should return the bulk of its team next year, including Lavigne and freshman phenom Quinn Hughes (plus maybe his little brother), and will be adding an influx of talent from Pearson’s first recruiting class, the fun has just begun for Michigan hockey and its fans.