Defense porous as struggling Michigan faces rough second-half schedule

Well, kids, here it is, 2013. Those Mayans had it all wrong. The world hasn’t ended. The Earth spins, the sun shines, winter has returned to North America after delivering its warning call this time last year, Team USA captured gold in the World Junior Championship.

In short, things are as they should be … unless you’re the Michigan Wolverines.

If you haven’t heard, Michigan lost for the first time ever to the U.S. Under-18 Team last Friday. In the 5-3 home loss, the youngsters from the development program outshot the Wolverines 37-22, proving once and for all that Michigan’s defense is nothing short of porous. Allowing 3.4 goals per game on average after a 5-1 home loss to Bowling Green on Tuesday, Michigan is 53rd of 59 Division I men’s teams.

Coach Red Berenson called last Friday’s loss “disappointing” for a team trying to find its way, adding that the Under-18 team “played with a lot more enthusiasm” than did the Wolverines.

“They outskated us, they outmuscled us and outhustled us, and obviously outscored us,” Berenson said. “It’s not like we’re a first-place team having a bad night. We’re a seventh-place team having a bad night.”

True, the Wolverines played without freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba, who was busy helping Team USA win that gold in Ufa, Russia. Junior defenseman Jon Merrill returned to limited play in the game after missing the first half of the season with a cracked vertebra. It’s clear that Michigan has sorely missed Merrill’s classmate, defenseman Kevin Clare, out with a shoulder injury since Oct. 9.

But outshot 37-22 by a bunch of kids — admittedly good kids — to whom you’ve never lost before?

“I was hoping we would take some steps,” Berenson said. “I mean, there’s not a guy in our locker room that has played his best hockey this year.”

Now the Wolverines are faced with a brutal second-half schedule, playing four teams ahead of them in the standings — Lake Superior, Western Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State — on the road.

It’s not just Michigan’s defense that puts the team in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1990. As Berenson said, no one is playing his best hockey for the Wolverines. Senior A.J. Treais (10-8–18) is on track to surpass the 15 goals he scored in 40 games last season, but he’s minus-3 in conference play on a team that needs an overall boost defensively.

Michigan’s offense is 23rd in the nation, averaging 2.89 goals per game; the Wolverines finished the 2011-12 season 10th in the country (3.22).

And even though the goaltending has been inconsistent, no one can blame the team’s current woes on two freshman goalies who had such little support in the first half of the season. Now having played 220 minutes this season, junior Adam Janecyk (2.73 goals against average, .915 save percentage) may be able to help steady the team. He did, however, get pulled after allowing four goals on 19 shots in two periods against the Falcons on Tuesday.

If Janecyk can’t steady the team and the Wolverines can’t figure out how to win in the second half, this Michigan team would have the distinction of being the first to sit out the NCAA postseason since before many of its players were born. I know that there are a lot of people out there who despise the Wolverines and would love to see that happen, but given Berenson’s loyalty to the CCHA and the way in which his success at Michigan has helped heighten the profile of the league and college hockey in general, I’d be sad to see the Wolverines’ last season in the CCHA end before late March.

And the Wildcats sweep on the road … so maybe the Mayans were onto something

Before last weekend’s series against St. Cloud State, Northern Michigan had won exactly one game away from the Berry Events Center and the last-place Wildcats had been shut out in two of their five previous contests, averaging a goal per game in that five-game span to end the first half.

Then last Friday night, something wonderful happened — for the Wildcats, that is. NMU beat SCSU 6-2. Six goals in one game. For Northern Michigan. Then NMU won again Saturday 2-1 to complete the road sweep.

The offense alone would have been enough to make coach Walt Kyle happy, but the sweep was sweet. “We’ve been so snake-bitten around the net,” Kyle told the St. Cloud Times. “We’ve had so many of our top offensive players out or playing at 75 percent.”

Kyle said that when the Wildcats began to score, he “could see relief” and the team’s confidence bolstered.

After Saturday’s game, my esteemed colleague Nick Hatten wrote that the Huskies were frustrated at being swept by the team tied for last place in the CCHA. Granted, that came with the context of the Huskies having split the week before with Rensselaer, the last-place team in ECAC Hockey, but still — and with all due respect to Bob Motzko, whom I both like and respect — I have but one thing to say: Ha!

In my column last week, Kyle talked about the parity of the CCHA, how good it is from top to bottom again this year and how anything may happen in the second half. I was a little more skeptical and after all, Kyle’s team is alone in last place.

But maybe Kyle’s right. Maybe the second half of this season will prove interesting and there will be motion in the standings. Maybe when it’s all over, this last season of CCHA hockey will feel more like 2011-12, which felt like one of the best in the league’s history.

We can only hope. And when I say, “We,” you know I’m including Walt Kyle and Chris Bergeron. Probably Tom Anastos and certainly Red Berenson, too.

A golden new year

Congratulations to Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki, who helped coach Team USA to gold in the WJC, and to CCHA players Riley Barber and Sean Kuraly (Miami), Trouba (Michigan) and Mario Lucia (Notre Dame). Congrats to all the players, NCAA and otherwise, who beat Sweden last Saturday to bring that gold medal back to the U.S.

That third period of play was the best hockey I’ve watched in a long time, and the final 10 minutes of the game were inspired — controlled, disciplined, technically nearly perfect, and clearly leading toward the inevitable.

Thanks for a great run. It was fun to follow.

Are you a CCHA super fan? Do you know a worthy CCHA super fan?

The CCHA wants to reward one fan from each CCHA school with a package that includes tickets to the final CCHA championship tournament, hotel accommodations, VIP passes for the league’s final blowout party and several other goodies.

Here are the details. The theory here is that you nominate someone you consider to be a super fan — someone deserving — and then pray that if he or she wins, the super fan decides to take you along as his or her plus-one.

I’m delighted to report that the nomination process includes a 300-word essay.

Players of the week … and the month

It’s almost a second sweep for Northern Michigan this week.

Rookie of the week: Western Michigan forward Colton Hargrove, who had two goals in WMU’s 6-0 road win over Bemidji State last Friday.

Offensive player of the week: Northern Michigan sophomore Reed Seckel, who had three goals and an assist in NMU’s sweep of St. Cloud State, including Saturday’s game-winning goal. Seckel has eight goals in 18 games this season. He had eight in 36 last year.

Defenseman of the week: NMU senior Kyle Follmer, who scored a goal in each game against the Huskies and blocked three shots on the weekend. Friday’s goal was Follmer’s first of the season, and his two goals in 21 games equal half of his goal production in 36 games in 2011-12.

Goaltender of the week: NMU junior Jared Coreau, who made 58 saves and held the Huskies to three goals in the back-to-back wins. It was Coreau’s and NMU’s second sweep of the season, the first since beating Wisconsin Oct. 12-13.

Players of the month

Notre Dame junior forward T.J. Tynan was the CCHA player of the month for December. Tynan had three goals and four assists as the Fighting Irish went 4-0 for the month.

His teammate, Lucia, was the CCHA rookie of the month. Lucia also had three goals and four assists in the month.

Miami freshman Ryan McKay was named the CCHA goaltender of the month. McKay was 2-2 with one shutout in December with a .970 save percentage and 0.76 goals against average for those games.

My ballot

1. Minnesota
2. Boston College
3. Notre Dame
4. New Hampshire
5. Denver
6. Miami
7. Boston University
8. North Dakota
9. Quinnipiac
10. Nebraska-Omaha
11. Western Michigan
12. Dartmouth
13. Minnesota State
14. St. Cloud State
15. Union
16. Ferris State
17. Robert Morris
18. Cornell
19. Niagara
20. Holy Cross

And I return to action this week, too

After taking some time off from game coverage, I’ll be returning to East Lansing Friday night for the Notre Dame-Michigan State game and Ann Arbor Saturday for Michigan’s game against Alaska. Say hello if you see me.

Email ([email protected]) or find me on Twitter (@paulacweston) to chat.