Michigan attacks title with balance
One in six goals this year has been scored by a defenseman
Elliot Olshansky, NCAA.com
The University of Michigan has featured some of college hockey’s top scorers in recent years. From 2008 Hobey Baker Award winner Kevin Porter – who was third in the nation in points per game in 2006-07 and second in 2007-08 – to T.J. Hensick (fourth in 2004-05, first in 2006-07), Jeff Tambellini (fifth in 2004-05) and Aaron Palushaj (fourth in 2008-09), it’s become common to see a Wolverine among the nation’s scoring leaders.
But not this year.
With the exception of Brown’s Jack Maclellan, it’s hard to find a top scorer in Division I who doesn’t play for either No. 1 Yale or No. 7 Miami. However, in looking at this season’s top scorers, you would have to go down to No. 48 before you find Michigan senior Carl Hagelin, who leads the Wolverines with 1.10 ppg (nine goals and 14 assists in 21 games).
Not that it has hurt the Maize and Blue all that much.
As the Wolverines prepare to visit rival Michigan State for the front end of a home-and-home series on Friday, Jan. 7 (7 p.m. ET on the Big Ten Network), they will take the CCHA’s best win percentage to East Lansing, Mich. What’s interesting is that Red Berenson’s team is seventh in the country in average scoring margin, the same position it occupied in the 2006-07 season when Hensick, Porter and Andrew Cogliano all sat among the top 10 scorers in the nation.
In other words, while the Wolverines lack a single go-to scorer this season – Hagelin leads Michigan with nine goals – a deep roster ensures that more often than not, the Wolverines have all the scoring they need.
“I think it’s better when you have a lot of guys contributing,” said Hagelin, co-captain of a team with 19 different goal-scorers. “It’s hard to play against.”
It’s an arrangement that clearly has its advantages, but it also took some getting used to. Michigan finished seventh in the CCHA a year ago, and was forced to win six consecutive games in the CCHA playoffs to extend its streak of NCAA Tournament appearances to 20 consecutive years.
This season, the Wolverines have little to complain about. The first half of the season saw UM go 12-5-4, win the Great Lakes Invitational for the third time in four years and beat Michigan State in front of 113,411 fans at Michigan Stadium in “The Big Chill at the Big House.”
As the Wolverines prepare to embark on the 2011 portion of their schedule, the lessons learned during the tumultuous 2009-10 campaign are clearly paying off.
“I think that last year, we found out how we could play and how we wanted to play,” said junior defenseman Brandon Burlon. “But that was only because we figured out how we shouldn’t be playing, and what it feels like to have to be behind the 8-ball, so to speak. We didn’t want to have that feeling again, and put ourselves in that position.”
It may have taken a while for the Wolverines to adjust to their current arrangement, but for Hagelin, who was a freshman on the team that Porter and linemate Chad Kolarik led to the 2008 Frozen Four, the team’s balance gives it an advantage over the star-driven Michigan teams of previous seasons.
“Freshman year, some games when Porter and Kolarik didn’t score – the other teams focused a lot on them, and some games they got shut down – it was hard for us to win,” Hagelin said. “I think it’s better this way.”
One place where Michigan has become considerably more dangerous is from the blueline, as nearly one of every six Michigan goals this season has been scored by a defenseman. That’s a far cry from the 2007-08 campaign when just eight of the Wolverines’ 170 goals were scored by defensemen. It also echoes the 2006-07 season when current NHL standouts Jack Johnson and Matt Hunwick led a blueline corps that contributed 30 of Michigan’s 174 goals.
“As a team, we’ve had to figure it out and not just rely one two guys like Louie [Caporusso] and [Aaron] Palushaj two years ago, or Porter and Kolarik three years ago,” Burlon said. “It definitely puts the onus on some guys to chip in a little more than they used to or than they’re expected to, and it helps ramp up everyone else’s game around them. Getting it going from a team perspective will definitely help down the road.”
As the Wolverines prepare to start their 2011 schedule on Friday night in a battle with their fiercest rivals, what happens “down the road” is on their minds. After all, there’s one thing that last year’s Michigan team has in common with the star-driven squads that preceded it: they didn’t win it all.
In the end, the goal is to bring home Michigan’s first NCAA Championship since 1998 and with a balanced attack, the Wolverines think they can achieve that goal.
“There’s a lot of excitement on the team,” Hagelin said. “We know that our record isn’t bad, but we know we can play better.”