Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Michigan

Michigan returns RPI's favor this year (and begins one for Union) by swinging through the Capital District for the first time since 1984-85, when they dropped a pair to the Engineers in Red Berenson's first year as head coach. That was a pretty good season for RPI. Riding right along with the mythical 31-year gap between national championships for the Engineers is the fact that they beat the Wolverines in both seasons where they won it all. They'll have the opportunity to try and repeat both of those "trends" this season.

Nickname: Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
Founded: 1817
Conference: Big Ten
National Championships: 9 (1948, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1964, 1996, 1998)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2011
Coach: Red Berenson (32nd season)
2014-15 Record: 22-15-0 (12-8-0-0 Big Ten, 3rd place)
Series: RPI leads, 7-5-1
First Game: March 12, 1954 (Colorado Springs, CO)
Last RPI win: December 29, 2009 (Detroit, MI)
Last Michigan win: November 29, 2014 (Ann Arbor, MI)

2015-16 game: October 24, 2015 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Cristoval Nieves, sr.; F Justin Selman, sr.; F J.T. Compher, jr.; D Nolan De Jong, jr.; D Michael Downing, jr.; F Alex Kile, jr.; F Tyler Motte, jr.; G Zach Nagelvoort, jr.; D Zach Werenski, so.; D Nick Boka, fr.; D Joe Cecconi, fr.; F Kyle Connor, fr.; F Brendan Warren, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
The Wolverines made the all-time series against the Engineers look a bit more respectable by sweeping last year's home series. Game 1 was actually a pretty good showing for RPI, but the visitors blew the game with some mental mistakes across a very short span in the third period and Michigan, as good teams will do (especially at home), jumped on those mistakes. In Game 2, the Wolverines put on a clinic, dissecting the Engineer defense for three goals in the first period en route to a 6-0 victory. Jason Kasdorf, fighting a mid-season injury, was not on the trip.

Considering that Michigan made a record 22 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament from 1991 to 2012, the fact that the tournament has been missing the Wolverines the last three years in a row is more than just a little bizarre. But this is a team that is definitely moving back in that general direction. Last season, they got back on the 20-win bandwagon (they'd managed that milestone 25 years in a row prior to 2013) and were more or less on the bubble for a tournament appearance.

Werenski and Connor are both fairly likely to go in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft this month - Werenski is a virtual lock to be a top 15 pick, while Connor could be a mid-to-late 1st round selection. Boka, Cecconi, and Warren are all highly likely to come to campus as NHL draft selections as well. All told, if there are no additional defections to the pro ranks (just two, senior-to-be Andrew Copp and sophomore-to-be Dylan Larkin, have left thus far), Michigan could be looking at as many as 11 NHL draftees on their roster.

The Wolverines boasted the nation's top offense and 3rd best power play last year, and many of the important drivers of those honors - Nieves, Kile, Compher, and Selman especially - are back in the Maize and Blue again this season. Copp, Larkin, and the leading scorer from last year, Zach Hyman, are gone, but there's plenty of talent there, and the addition of Connor to the attack should help the offense continue to hit without too terribly much of a hitch.

The defensive side of the puck was where Michigan was somewhat vulnerable, but even there they were doing an acceptable job. With the exception of one senior blueliner, all of the Wolverines' regulars on defense, including goaltender Nagelvoort, were either freshmen or sophomores. That fact tends to make Michigan's team GAA of 2.89 look a lot better. This year, there are no seniors at all among the UM defense, but expect this team to keep the puck out of the net better than they did last year as the core gets more experienced.

Honestly, there's never a time when Michigan wouldn't represent a good test for RPI - even in the 2009 GLI, the last win that the Engineers claimed over the Wolverines thanks to some shoddy goaltending by the ersatz home team. That's going to be true this year as well. If there are any areas in which RPI looks favored, it's going to be playing on home ice and arguably being the "fresher" of the two teams, as Michigan is the only game of that weekend for RPI while the Wolverines have to tangle with Union the previous night in Schenectady. That's not terribly likely to even up the score to any great degree and turn the home team into the favorites, but it should help make an exciting matchup for the home crowd that bit more interesting. What areas there are to be exploited in the defense need to be hit early, because Michigan will be a difficult team to come back on, even at home.

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