In the shadow of March Madness, the 2016 NCAA men’s hockey tournament began Friday, March 25 and was capped by some of the most exciting hockey of the season.
One game in particular was a sign of what’s to come for the Big Ten, as Michigan squared off with Notre Dame in front of a packed crowd in Cincinnati. With Notre Dame set to join the conference as a hockey-only affiliate member in the 2017-18 season, the game had all the feelings of a rivalry in the making.
It was 60 minutes of end-to-end action featuring two of the best skating teams in the nation and couldn’t be decided in regular time, with the third period ending in a 2-2 tie. But in the end, Michigan’s top line gave Notre Dame a heartbreaking preview of what to expect when they join the conference.
Midway through the first overtime period, J.T. Compher forced a turnover at Notre Dame’s blue line, gained possession and passed out wide to a streaking Kyle Connor. Connor hesitated and then passed back to Compher as he skated past Notre Dame’s goal. Compher, with his back to the goal as Tyler Motte crashed the net, let a no-look centering pass fly and Motte, in perfect position, smashed a one-timer in for the game winner.
That’s the way this line has played for the Wolverines all season. Their creative, free-flowing play is fun to watch, it’s how hockey should be played and it shows exactly what’s been missing from Wisconsin men’s hockey for some time now — a spark.
On offense, Wisconsin has been formulaic, playing by the boards and settling for long to mid-range shots with limited success. They don’t break down defenses with creative passing or skating. They’re predictable.
It’s a shame Wisconsin plays this way given the talent on the roster in Luke Kunin, Grant Besse, Cameron Hughes and others.
The team went 12-46-13 in the past two seasons and during that time former head coach Mike Eaves repeatedly said the team was young and learning. Understandably, he had to say that to the media, but that doesn’t say great things about the program if it only won four more games in 2015-16 than it did during 2014-15.
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While it’s tough to learn a system and mesh with new players, it seems the Badgers never did that. They looked stagnant under Eaves’ system and so he was let go on March 18. The move was a big shakeup for the program, which had Eaves at the helm for 14 seasons, and started a national search for a new head coach.
The new head coach will have a tough task at hand to find a way to spark the Badgers’ roster and create chemistry between players who look like they’re playing a system, not playing as lines.
Youth and growing pains cannot be the standard excuse for Wisconsin anymore. Michigan’s top line does have two juniors on it, but Connor is a freshman. The line was put together this season and grew into the most devastating unit in the country in a matter of months.
That should be the goal for Wisconsin’s next head coach — to group players together so they know each other like the back of their hand and play exciting, creative hockey. Even if the Badgers don’t possess the most talented players, chemistry and creativity can overcome talent.
It makes no-look, behind-the-back centering passes seem easy because the player making the pass knows his teammate will be there crashing the net. When a team plays the way Michigan’s top line does, it can be near unstoppable and break down defenses time and time again.
That line led Michigan to become the top-scoring team in the nation, which averages 4.84 goals per game and overcomes less than stellar defense. It’s a model Wisconsin could follow since the team has consistently struggled to put the puck in the net this season while giving up goals in droves.
Wisconsin allowed 3.63 goals per game this season while only scoring 2.66 goals per game and were last in the Big Ten in shots on goal, but were only outshot by 64 total shots in games this season. They were, however, outscored by 34 goals, which speaks largely about what kind of shots the Badgers are taking versus what kind of shots they’re giving up.
Other teams are breaking down the Badgers’ defense much more often than the Badgers do to other teams.
With declining attendance and revenue, the pressure is on for the Badgers and their next head coach. But taking a page out of Michigan’s book could help propel Wisconsin come next season.
Chemistry creates success. The formulaic play needs to be ditched — it’s time for Wisconsin to get creative with more outlet passes, overlaps and tools of the sort to put pucks in the net.