Defensive issues pose problem for Michigan

Michigan's hockey program is known for its consistency, but the only thing the Wolverines have managed to do consistently this season is play inconsistently.

Updated: February 13, 2006, 3:42 PM ET
By David Albright | ESPN.com

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- If you're looking for a college hockey history lesson, Yost Ice Arena is a good place to start your education.

The old barn at 1000 South State Street -- home to the University of Michigan hockey team since 1973 -- is covered from floor to ceiling in the history of the game.

Granted, most of it revolves around the team that wears the famous winged helmets, but considering the Wolverines won the first NCAA Tournament back in 1948 and have won more national titles than any other school, Yost feels like it should be a museum to college hockey.

When you walk into the north entrance of the building, you are greeted by trophy case after trophy case of the Wolverines' accomplishments. They chronicle the rich history of the program, which dates back to 1922 in Weinberg Coliseum, and highlight the 57 players who have worn a Michigan hockey sweater and gone on to All-America status.

Make your way into the seating area of the arena and it's hard to escape the 28 banners hanging from the gun metal grey girders that make up a roofline dating back to the building's original construction in 1923.

The banners -- in alternating rows of white, maize and blue -- announce Michigan's national championships (9), CCHA playoff titles (7) and WCHA/CCHA conference titles (12). Hanging from the south wall are three more large banners that list the Wolverines' Frozen Four appearances (22), national titles (again) and Great Lakes Invitational crowns (11).

Jack Johnson
Amir Gamzu/Wolverine PhotoUM defenseman Jack Johnson has accumulated 129 penalty minutes this season.
If there's one term that best describes the history of the Michigan hockey program -- especially over the past 15 years -- it's consistency. The Wolverines haven't missed the NCAA Tournament since 1990 -- a current run that is the best in the nation.

And while the 2005-06 Michigan hockey club isn't in any current danger of breaking that postseason streak, the only thing the Wolverines have managed to do consistently this season is be inconsistent.

They enjoyed early success back in October and November -- including being ranked No. 1 in the nation for two different two-week stretches -- but from Nov. 25 to Feb. 7, Michigan was a very unspectacular 8-9-2.

Red Berenson's club entered this weekend sitting at No. 7 in the nation, with an opportunity to put together a run in the final three weeks of the regular season. On the schedule were six games against three teams behind them in the CCHA standings. And three of those were scheduled for Yost, a building considered to be one of the most intimidating home ice advantages in college hockey.

In other words, a perfect recipe for the Wolverines to find their way before making another postseason run.

Or so they thought.

A much improved Lake Superior State team came into Yost on Friday night, survived a first period in which it appeared Michigan could have put the Lakers away, and then the boys from the Upper Peninsula won it 3-2 in overtime to send the overflow crowd of 6,740 out quietly into the streets.

"I think everyone realizes how close the games are going to be from here on in," Berenson said. "And one shot, one way or another, is the difference in the game, whether it's in overtime or late in the third period. We were getting some good chances and [goalie Noah Ruden] was giving us a chance, but that [overtime] goal was a backbreaker, no question.

"It's a home game, it's a huge game and you have to find a way to win."

A clearly frustrated T.J. Hensick was a little more direct. "It's disappointing in every aspect," the junior center said. "You look at it in the standings and it's huge. We had them on the ropes in the first period at 2-1 and we need to refocus with a better effort. I can't sit here and say we were the better team. I think we just got outworked."

Michigan came back with a relatively convincing 4-2 home-ice win on Saturday night, but the Maize and Blue (18-11-3) are clearly still a work in progress.

We need to come to work. It's something that this team has been doing at times, but not for 60 minutes. Until we can do that for 60 minutes, we are going to be able to be beaten on any night.
Michigan center T.J. Hensick
A lot was made heading into the season about the relative youth of the Wolverines roster, which includes 11 freshmen and four sophomores. But that same roster also includes nine NHL draft picks, including two first-round picks from 2005.

One of those first-rounders, freshman defenseman Jack Johnson, could be playing with the Carolina Hurricanes before this NHL season is over.

And the talent level is clearly evident when you watch the Wolverines' offense end and consider they are the No. 3 scoring team in the nation at 3.75 goals a game through Feb. 12. On the individual front, Hensick (13 goals, 30 assists, 43 points), sophomore left wing Kevin Porter (16-15-31) and senior center Andrew Ebbett (10-21-31) are all in the top 10 in the CCHA in scoring.

The issue for Michigan appears to be at the other end of the ice, and it's a two-fold problem. First, the Wolverines are fourth in the country in penalty minutes (732), but only possess an average penalty kill (21st, 84.4 percent).

And second, Berenson hasn't been able to settle on a goaltender. Over the last 11 seasons, the coach has been able to rely on rock-solid goaltending: From Marty Turco to Josh Blackburn to Al Montoya, there was never a question about who would be in the pipes for Michigan.

That luxury is momentarily over. This year, it's been a seemingly constant rotation of Ruden (7-6, 2.66, .918) and freshman Billy Sauer (11-5-3, 3.01, .898), with neither being able to establish himself as the clear choice to backstop the Wolverines.

Ruden has started the last four games and in the process recorded three wins. But it was the Friday night loss to the Lakers that left Ruden -- who left too many second-chance opportunities in front of him and let in a couple of soft goals -- shaking his head after the game.

"It was disappointing for a lot of reasons," the senior goaltender said. "I'm thinking about that last goal and I should have had it, it went off my glove. And then the first goal, I should have had it too. And then you look at the ramifications of that one."

Not only was it the fifth loss at Yost for Michigan, the most since 2001-02, but it left the Wolverines questioning a lot more than the play of their goaltenders.

"We need to come to work. It's something that this team has been doing at times, but not for 60 minutes," Hensick said. "Until we can do that for 60 minutes, we are going to be able to be beaten on any night."

Unless Michigan completely collapses in the final four games of the regular season and in the CCHA Tournament, a 16th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance in six weeks appears very likely.

But which team shows up in late March remains to be seen. Keep in mind that the Wolverines haven't lost their first NCAA game since 1994, but they also haven't advanced to the Frozen Four since 2003.

"We've seen flashes of brilliance from this team, and then we see times when we're running around in our own end for two minutes straight," Ebbett said. "We need to get everybody on the same page down the stretch run, especially in the playoffs, or else we're going to be in trouble.

"It doesn't matter who is in the net for us, because both guys are capable of doing the job. We just have to find a way to be a more consistent hockey team."

If the Wolverines don't, they'll be history next month.

David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.

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