Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Leftovers From The Michigan Series

No, this wasn't the same Michigan team.

That much was apparent early and often during Minnesota's 5-2 and 4-2 wins over the Wolverines to extend its winning streak to six games.

(You can read both of my game stories in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Friday here. Saturday here.)

Michigan's goals Friday came off of two turnovers in the defensive zone (the second being about as easy of a giveaway that Leon Bristedt could have given up to Brendan Warren). The offensive juggernaut from last season had barely any offense this time around.

By the time head coach Red Berenson spoke Friday he said what we all knew.

"We have to be better defensively as a group. We're not a gifted team. We're not last year's team. We're not going to lead the country in scoring," said Berenson, who has seen it all in a 30+ year coaching career with the Wolverines. "In fact it's hard for us to score. How many games have we scored three goals? "

Lose as many dynamic players as Berenson's team has over the past two seasons and trying to replace becomes a steeper and steeper task. (It's something Minnesota fans can relate to after the string of one-and-dones from 2004-2007.) Not every class contains a Dylan Larkin or Kyle Connor. Getting an upperclassmen resurgence from Zach Hyman or Tyler Motte takes time.

This year, however, the Wolverines - without top freshman forward Will Lockwood last weekend - have gone back to square one. Michigan led the nation in goals per game a season ago. Without the CCM line and Zach Werenski the shooting gallery is gone in Ann Arbor. Only three teams in the country have a worse Corsi close (42.5%) than the Wolverines.

Minnesota focused on shot suppression this weekend, holding Michigan to 42 shots in 2 games. Putting the pressure on the Wolverines defense and goaltending, the road team was more conservative and Minnesota controlled possession almost at will.

"Too many shots. Too many chances. We weren't good enough with the puck or without the puck," said Berenson after Friday's loss.

Berenson, for what it's worth, did have praise for the Gophers.

"They're as good of a team as any team in the country on any given night," he said.

Five more leftover thoughts after the jump:

1. Penalty shot excitement

If you enjoyed Vinni Lettieri's penalty shot goal Saturday, thank the Mariucci Arena crowd. Without them it likely wouldn't have happened.

College hockey has the option for coaches to either take the penalty shot or a two minute penalty. Up 2-0 and trying to kill its 20th straight penalty, the safer option would have been to take the penalty which came from Alex Kile holding Lettieri on his breakaway attempt.

Head coach Don Lucia said he nearly took the safe option before choosing to have Vinni shoot.

"The crowd, they wanted to see it," said Lucia. "Give Vinni credit. It's not easy to do. All the pressure is on the shooter. He made a quick shot before the goalie could grab."

For their part, the crowd responded with one of the loudest roars I've heard this year.

Lettieri's penalty shot was the first successfully made one for Minnesota since Jake Hansen did so in March 2011 against Alaska-Anchorage. He had missed an attempt early last season against Northeastern.

1a. Besides the penalty shot, the Gophers played until the buzzer. Four of the six periods ended with last minute goals (the fourth being an empty netter to complete Lettieri's rare "power play, shorthanded penalty shot and empty netter" hat trick) by Minnesota. A fifth had a goal in the last two minutes.

Two were almost as late as it gets, with Mike Szmatula scoring with 1.7 seconds remaining in the first period Friday and Lettieri with 2.3 on Saturday. The latter was necessary to give the Gophers a lead following its sloppiest period of the weekend. His goal was followed defensively with quicker passes and better defense as Minnesota had a lead it kept all game.

By the way, how often does 2.3 seconds left in a period not end up being the latest in a weekend?

1b. Lettieri was named the Big Ten's Second Star of the Week for his hat trick. Penn State's Chase Berger is First Star. Ohio State goalie Christian Frey is Third Star.

2. Giant Flag!

Appropriately making its return to Mariucci Arena on Friday's Military Appreciation Night was a giant American flag.

The US flag came back in honor of Team USA winning the World Junior Championship. It was brought out in 2013 for Mike Reilly and Grant Potulny, along with Notre Dame's Mario Lucia's first game back after the WJC. This time around Potulny (again), Ryan Lindgren and Michigan' Joe Cecconi were recognized.

Lindgren, along with St. Cloud State's Jack Achan will be honored Tuesday night by the Minnesota Wild prior to its game against New Jersey. Both will be saying "Let's Play Hockey."

2a. While we're talking about honors, Gopher captain Justin Kloos was named one of 15 nominees for the Senior CLASS Award. The winner, the senior who "best exemplifies excellence in the four Cs of community, classroom, character and competition," will be announced at the Frozen Four in Chicago. Mike Guentzel was also honored with the Terry Flanigan Award by the American Hockey Coaches Association.

3. Preparing for illness

As noted previously, last week's preparation wasn't easy for Minnesota. Every day it seemed a new player felt the effects of an illness going around the locker room. Before Saturday's game Jack Sadek had to be scratched late. Jack Glover instead played with an hour's notice.

While Lucia said there's no way to prepare for the number of ill players, having experience throughout the season with players in different roles and positions did help against Michigan.

"That's the nice thing. We have 7 D who have played every weekend. We feel comfortable with all 7 defensemen playing," he said. "I think part of it is juggling our lines. Game to game we haven't had the same lineup. It didn't effect anything because of that, I think"

Minnesota might need it more. Two more players were ill Monday.

4. Ryan Collins' weekend

It's been bubbling on the surface for a while now, but junior defenseman Ryan Collins positively stood out on both ends of the ice. Collins finished with a goal Saturday and two assists Friday. He's much more comfortable with the puck entering the zone and has a green light to shoot. More importantly, he made some big plays defensively against the Wolverines.

Plus it happened at the same rink and same team where not too long ago it all went awry.

Lucia singled out the 6'6" defenseman's play Friday night.

"I thought Ryan had a really good game tonight. He's really starting to come on," he said.

To Collins, a lot of credit goes to his defensive partner, freshman Ryan Zuhsldorf.

"Everything kind of clicks sometimes. Zuhlsdorf and I have found some chemistry. We have good communication on the back end and I think that's crucial for a D pair to have," Collins said. "It takes time. He's a freshman, he's new to the program. It takes time to learn those things. He's matured a lot this year and we've really started to click.

"His skating and his intelligence (stand out). He's rarely out of position. That's crucial - it's easy to get lost out there on the big ice your first season."

5. Tommy Novak injury

Unfortunately for Novak, this weekend won't be remembered for scoring his first goal in nearly two months and heading to Wisconsin, the place where he was lit up by Eddie Wittchow a year ago, with confidence.

Minnesota announced Monday that Novak will miss the rest of the season with a lower body (knee) injury. He had to be helped off the ice with 1:40 remaining in Saturday's win after a collision in the Minnesota zone.

He's not the only injury in Big Ten play. Ohio State leading scorer Nick Schilkey left Saturday's 2-2 tie against Arizona State in the first period. He is out for this weekend's series against Penn State while two more forwards, Tanner Laczynski and Matthew Weis, are questionable.

You can read more on it, including who I think could replace him as a center and on the power play. It's unfortunate to see someone's season end prematurely.

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