Midweek Roundup: November 23, 2021
We’re on to Niagara(,but we aren’t just going to stop talking about Notre Dame).
On the heels of a pair of disappointing overtimelosses at home to Notre Dame, the University of Michigan men’s ice hockey team now sits at fourth in the USCHO poll and third according to USA Today. This weekend, with all eyes in the state fixated on the gridiron, the Wolverines host Niagara University for a Friday/Saturday set.
Last weekend’s Sunday recap column closed just shy of 1,800 words, and I still felt I had several other notes from the games I wanted to touch on. We revisit a few of those topics below, along with previewing the Niagara series.
Scouting the (Delightfully Named) Purple Eagles
At present, Jason Lammers’ Niagara side sits at 2-6-2 (2-2-2 in conference play), which leaves them ninth of Atlantic Hockey’s ten teams. Traditionally under Lammers, the Purple Eagles struggle in the regular season, then make a decent Atlantic Hockey tournament run that falls short. Entering this season, Lammers had his work cut out for him, tasked with replacing three of last season’s top five scorers.
To date, they’ve lived up to the first half of that Lammers formula, with a rather woeful start. Last weekend, the Purple Eagles lost a pair of home games to Army, albeit one of them in a shootout. They have also split conference series with Air Force and Sacred Heart.
We can dip back to the non-conference portion of the schedule to track down a common opponent with Michigan: Penn State. Niagara traveled to Pegula Ice Arena for games on October 21st and 22nd, which they lost 0-4 and 2-6. If you need a reminder (or perhaps a pick-me-up for those of you still stewing over Notre Dame), Michigan won its two games in State College 5-1 and 6-2.
Far be it for me to suggest that Niagara has a perfect roster in terms of its skater group, but the crux of the issue (and I say this as someone who has admittedly watched zero (0) minutes of Niagara hockey this year) is between the pipes.
The Purple Eagles entered the season believing they had a reliable starter in junior Chad Veltri. In his first two years at Niagara, Veltri posted save percentages of .931 (outstanding) and .914 (serviceable at worst). This year, through six games, Veltri is a dismal .888. Compounding matters, freshman backup Jake Sibell, who has appeared in four games, is even worse at .884.
Simply put, even Michigan’s vaunted skating group would struggle to scrape out decent results with goaltending this poor, so an Atlantic Hockey cellar dweller replacing three of its top five scorers from last year, well, it’s going about how you’d think it would.
I said at the close of Sunday’s column that the Wolverines could do with a “get right” series against the Purple Eagles. Putting up crooked numbers each night is a reasonable base expectation.
Bordeleau’s Saturday Surge
As I said in reference to Notre Dame’s Ryd*r R*lston in Sunday’s recap column, I have no interest in singling out college athletes for their poor performance. Now, I find myself making a second exception to that policy for the second time in just a few days, but this time it is for more charitable reasons.
Friday night’s Notre Dame game was probably the least impressive performance I’ve seen this season from Thomas Bordeleau. On the one hand, this is understandable, as he was separated from his reliable and lethal running mate Brendan Brisson for the first time all year and instead centered Mike Pastujov and Nolan Moyle. With that caveat offered, Bordeleau’s touch on the puck seemed heavier than usual; he lacked the grace Michigan fans have grown to expect from him.
In many ways, Bordeleau’s style makes him easy to criticize. A bit like William Nylander, or even Mesut Ozil to draw an example from a different sport, the strength of his game is its smoothness. When playing his best, Bordeleau makes the game look easy with the way he breezes around defenders and glides into open patches of ice. This also means that, when the puck isn’t going in for him, Bordeleau becomes an easy target. He isn’t playing hard enough. He doesn’t care. He’s soft in the corners. I wouldn’t offer any of that lazy analysis about Bordeleau’s performance Friday, but I will say that his puck control, which to me is his greatest gift, let him down a bit.
On Saturday, with a boost from Mackie Samoskevich replacing Moyle on his right wing, Bordeleau was among Michigan’s best players, and his line its most consistent in asking questions of the Irish. Much more in keeping with our expectations, the Quebecois forward danced all night long, combining with his linemates to find space. Bordeleau was rewarded with two goals, both of which felt more like goaltending blunders than outstanding individual efforts, but, based on the sum total of his performance, he was a more-than-worthy goalscorer.
Blankenburg’s Return and Energy
Captain Nick Blankenburg, out since the October 29th Wisconsin game, returned to the lineup this weekend and made his presence felt on the scoresheet with the above goal on Saturday night. Though the Wolverines swept Michigan State and Penn State in his absence, Blankenburg’s return provides without question a jolt of energy for the Wolverines. As his goal shows, the diminutive senior defenseman feels no compunction about attacking even the dirtiest of areas in the offensive zone.
From an aesthetic perspective, Blankenburg’s return is a delight to anyone who watches Michigan play. There is a decided joy to his game, leaving no doubt that he takes pleasure in each crafty pass he snaps or checker he outmaneuvers at the offensive blue line. On a team full of exceptional puck movers (many of them more highly touted NHL prospects than he), Blankenburg stands out for his ability to facilitate the puck up the ice, always appearing able to set up the forward next in line with an open play to make.
Blankenburg’s attacking mindset was best on display during Saturday’s three-on-three overtime period. Throughout the two three-on-three sessions, Mel Pearson employed two forwards and one defenseman, but he made an exception for Blankenburg, who operated more as a forward than defenseman whenever he hopped over the boards. The OT period began with Bordeleau-Blankenburg-Power (who is overdue for a bit more analysis but alas not today) as the three-on-ice for Pearson. With most of Michigan’s skaters content to play a patient, possession game, it was Blankenburg who forced the issue, insisting on a more dogged attack from his teammates.
Portillo More than Steady
Before closing, we want to once again commend Erik Portillo on his outstanding performances this weekend. Both results were unfavorable, but goaltending was by no means the weak link for Michigan on either night. Now through fourteen games (double the number he appeared in as a freshman a year ago), Portillo boasts an impressive .918 save percentage, a number that looks even better when you consider that it is not exactly a tight checking, defensive team he plays behind. Going into the year, we feared that Portillo may prove a scapegoat for a team loaded with offensive talent, but once again, we are happy to report once again that the sophomore Swede is not just carrying his own weight but also some of his teammates’.