November 4, 2012

Three questions: Why is Michigan hockey struggling?

The Michigan hockey team arrived back in Ann Arbor following an 0-1-1 performance at Northern Michigan this weekend. The Wolverines aren't happy with their effort and their results, and we look at the important questions.

Freshman Steve Racine started both games in net so is it fair to say he's U-M's starting netminder going forward?

Head coach Red Berenson said before the weekend that Racine would start Friday night's game with Saturday TBD. Even though the rookie allowed four goals on 28 shots, he wasn't guilty of surrendering the soft goal that raises Berenson's ire.

On Saturday, in the Wolverines' 4-3 defeat, Racine made just 18 stops and he finished the weekend with an .840 save percentage. Certainly, he shouldn't be resting easy, thinking he has this thing all locked up, but he's still a better option than classmate Jared Rutledge or U-M's two veterans at this point.

However, expect a heated competition this week in practice as Michigan prepares for a home-and-home with Michigan State. Racine will likely start Friday but if the numbers aren't pretty for a third consecutive game, he could take a seat for the night, and Rutledge could get the chance to prove himself up for the job.

Michigan was a preseason top-five team (No. 1 per The Hockey News) but is just 3-3-1 after seven - what gives?

Coming into the season, we knew that goalie play was a question mark, and that it might take some time for the offense to come together. The Maize and Blue were banking on a defensive corps that could go eight-deep, boasted four juniors and seniors, and may have paired together the top duo - junior Jon Merrill and freshman Jacob Trouba - in the country.

Goalie play has been average, the offense has been better than expected - Michigan leads the country in offense with 4.43 goals per game - but the defense has been subpar, ranking 50th in the country in yielding 3.43 markers per game.

Some of that can be chalked up to the instability and inexperience in net, but the truth is, when Merrill went down before the season, Michigan lost a big part of its identity. He was supposed to be the top blue liner on the team and one of the nation's best, holding down the No. 1 pairing with Trouba as the two smothered the opponent's best line and did things offensively few defensemen are capable of.

Instead, this defensive corps has seemed lost. Junior Mac Bennett has elevated his play, but he's not a dominant personality on the ice. Senior Lee Moffie has always been a complementary player junior Kevin Clare is still coming into his own while sophomores Brennan Serville, Michael Szuma and Mike Chiasson have yet to establish themselves.

Without Merrill, U-M has to be something else, and at the moment, it doesn't know what that is.

How many points could senior A.J. Treais be good for this season?

The senior center leads U-M in scoring with seven goals and 10 points, averaging 1.43 points per game. In his career, he's never averaged better than 1.00 point per game, setting a previous career high with 0.80 a year ago.

Unquestionably the top offensive talent on the team, Treais will likely occupy the center position on the No. 1 line all season and because of that he'll continue to get the ice time in 5-on-5 situations, and on the power play, to produce. Treais merits credit too, stepping up for the Wolverines when they've needed him.

He's following in the footsteps of Michigan captains that have led the Maize and Blue in scoring, joining Todd Brost (1989), Brian Wiseman (1994), Brendan Morrison (1997), Kevin Porter (2008) and Carl Hagelin (2011).

Treais is on pace to score 40 goals, and while that's unlikely, he could have a T.J. Hensick like season, tallying 20-25 goals and 25-30 assists.

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