The offensive line chart that Michigan coach Red Berenson put out Saturday night in the series finale against Ferris State night didn’t look even remotely similar to the one he posted when the Michigan hockey team opened up its season on Oct. 11.
Even compared to the line chart in the Wolverines’ 5-0 loss the night before, there were glaring differences.
But sudden, multiple changes to Michigan’s offensive personnel have been a common trend this season. Berenson has continuously mixed and matched different forwards in an effort to produce more quality play.
“We’re looking for who can help (each) line get better,” Berenson said. “It might be offensively or defensively, but it gives you a new life sometimes when you get a new player on the line. If we were playing really rock-solid as a team night after night, I wouldn’t be changing lines.”
Heading into last weekend’s contest with the Bulldogs, Michigan had been stagnant on both offense and defense. Spanning back to a Nov. 10 loss at Michigan State, the Wolverines have gone 1-4, scoring just six goals while allowing 22. The offense, which had been one of the top in the nation earlier in the year, had faltered, and the defense had allowed 3.46 goals per game on the year.
Though Saturday’s switch worked offensively — the Wolverines scored three goals in less than two minutes during the first period — the defensive effort still wasn’t completely effective. Whether it was the fault of freshman netminder Steve Racine or poor defensive-zone coverage, which has plagued Michigan all season, Ferris State was able to rally in the second and third periods to tie up the game with three unanswered goals.
Surprisingly, Berenson has consistently said that the Wolverines’ defensive struggles are just as much a result of forwards’ miscues as defensemen’s miscues.
“I think coach is stressing the importance of defense right now,” said senior forward Kevin Lynch. “As long as we’re not giving up goals, that’s the most important thing. I think he’s still just trying to focus on the defensive part of the game — backchecking hard and cutting things down in the defensive zone and then the offense will come.”
Berenson has also touched on the production of the lines as a whole. Senior forward A.J. Treais who leads Michigan in scoring with 10 goals — more than double anybody else on the team — has led the top line all season. The rest of the offense has been decidedly hot or cold, either scoring in bunches or not scoring at all. Though Treais has been mixed and matched with various players, his line on Saturday of Lynch and senior Lindsay Sparks accounted for four points with two goals and two assists.
The third and fourth lines, which usually provide little production, have been almost nonexistent. Freshman forward Justin Selman has two goals during the last seven games and he is the only player from the third and fourth lines to notch a goal during that stretch.
Though the expectations for the third and fourth lines are lower than the top lines as they tend to be comprised of younger players, production from them can rally the veteran players to play harder and more inspired.
“We played the last two games and at least three players have scored their first goal of the season against us,” Berenson said. “That’s the fourth line guys that are scoring. … We’re expecting (Treais) to be an offensive player but we’re also expecting the other guys that are playing regularly to chip in with the odd goal when they get a chance. You can’t keep playing and never score and expect to be a plus player.”
Lynch said that Berenson likes to mix up lines early in the season to see “how much chemistry they have.”And with the Wolverines’ current bye week, Berenson and his coaching staff will have ample opportunities and time to try and find the right recipe.
The coaching staff has shown all year that being a plus player — having more goals scored than allowed when you are on the ice — is important. And with the defense giving up a conference-high 3.45 goals per game, playing both ways will continue to be the only way for Michigan to cut down on the goals against.