The No. 5 Michigan hockey team has run the drill for about two months now. They ran it on Tuesday, even though the shortened afternoon practice left time for just a few select drills.
The drill is simple and the framework familiar. Two Michigan forwards skate up the ice with one defender in between. The objective, as always, is to score.
No, not groundbreaking stuff, but there’s a small wrinkle the Wolverines added that says a lot about why this team has improved in the second half of the season:
“(Berenson) just says you have to pass it early,” said junior forward A.J. Treais.
This small focus point has received a significant deal of attention this season, and it has begun to pay dividends.
In the early part of the season, Michigan struggled mightily on odd-man rushes. On some two-on-ones or two-on-nones, the attacking Wolverines would play a game of hot potato and fail to shoot.
“We’ve had trouble with those rushes, so we put some different points of emphasis in there,” Berenson said. “Even last year, look at Carl (Hagelin) and (Matt) Rust, how many two-on-ones they had. They never scored until we finally told them what to do.”
In the Notre Dame series just three weeks ago, two of Michigan’s most prolific scorers, junior forward Chris Brown and freshman forward Alex Guptill, seemed lost on a rush, what should be one of the game’s easiest scoring situations.
With no defenders in the vicinity, Brown passed to Guptill, who passed back to Brown, and so on. Eventually, Brown passed to Guptill near the crease, but the puck was just out of reach. The duo didn’t even muster a shot.
Flash forward to the series with Michigan State this past weekend. Junior forward A.J. Treais scored three times in the series, twice on odd-man rushes. On each, his linemates, freshman forward Phil Di Giuseppe and senior forward Luke Glendening, made the pass early.
“If you make the pass early, that lane’s there,” Treais said. “If you keep waiting toward the net, those lanes close.
“Me and Glendening are starting to jell a little bit better. He kind of knows where I am without looking. On that second goal, I was flying up the ice pretty late, and he just heard one ‘hey, I’m here,’ and he threw it to the area and I was there.”
Converting players like Treais into scorers has been a major accomplishment for Berenson. Brown said the team used to look to fake the shot then pass, when it should be thinking the opposite.
But changing the way some players approach the game entails more than just improving their hockey skills. Treais, for example, may have the most offensive talent on the team, but he is also the most laid back.
Off the ice, that makes for a friendly teammate. On the ice, it can become a liability.
“He needs to be fiery,” Berenson said. “He needs to be abrasive. He needs to be hungry. He needs to be into it. And if he is, he’s a different player.
“We have players that won’t shoot. Shoot the puck. A.J. would rather not shoot the puck, and now we’ve got him shooting the puck, and look at the difference.”
Berenson cautions that the Wolverines’ transition offense remains a work in progress.
As recently as Monday, Brown and others received an earful from the coaching staff during film study for committing errors on a rush.
“I was kind of the brunt of that for a little bit,” Brown said. “You can see yourself — if you have a chance to shoot, you need to shoot.”