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For Michigan, Nieves’s feet mean goals

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Erin Lennon, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 28, 2013

If life is a highway, hockey is the German autobahn with a few daunting roadblocks along the way — the defensemen.

And come game time, sophomore forward Boo Nieves is the McLaren F1, stuck in first gear.

Early in the second period Friday against Boston University, Nieves turned a one-on-one breakaway into a solo look at the Terriers’s net, faking right and then blowing past a defenseman with that familiar ease. Nieves came equally close to scoring later in the period during No. 4 Michigan’s second power play, but fell into the net without the puck.

“I liked his energy on Friday and the speed when he cut around the defensemen twice and went to the net,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “I thought his puck touches, defensive awareness, and his intensity and faceoffs were right on. And on Saturday, he never got that back.”

At full speed, Nieves wove easily through traffic. But that’s about the only time he’s given the crowd something to marvel at this season. Before the season, Berenson singled Nieves out as one of several players in need of a breakout year for the Wolverines.

Through six games this season, Nieves has only one goal and one assist. Without utilizing much of his signature speed, he has been a non-factor in each of the Wolverines’ four victories. He is on pace for a repeat season — Nieves tallied 29 points, including eight goals and 21 assists in 41 appearances as a freshman. But as one of the Wolverines’ key offensive weapons — especially on a line with junior forwards Alex Guptill and Zach Hyman — cruising just won’t cut it.

The talent is there — we saw a glimpse of that on Friday night.

Following the departure of five Wolverines, Michigan’s biggest question mark heading into the season was the special teams. Last season, power-play production fell largely on the shoulder of first-year Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba, while penalty killing was the job of former Wolverines A.J. Treais, Lee Moffie, Kevin Lynch and Jon Merrill.

Thus far, the penalty kill has been as close to perfect as can be expected of a roster that includes 10 freshmen — not to mention a backup freshman in net. But as predicted, the power play has taken longer to develop. And Michigan’s power play is just 7-for-23 this season. But the Wolverines’ first loss of the season on Saturday featured one goal from the home team — something the penalty kill won’t be able to control.

Nieves has since moved into the center position after spending his freshman year at left wing. In his new role, Nieves represents the speed, while sophomore forward Andrew Copp represents the strength. At center, Nieves is given more room to skate and a better view of the defense he need to weave around. And on a line with Guptill — who has tallied two goals and two assists in five games — Nieves has the potential to set the tempo for a highly touted offense.

He has the ability to create offense simply by being fast on his feet, said senior defenseman Mac Bennett.

Bennett refers to Nieves’s lack of production as little more than a sophomore slump.

“You go from not playing at all over the summer to coming back, and all of a sudden it’s tough to be consistent,” he said. “It’s an issue I’ve been dealing with myself. But as we play more and more, you’ll see his stock rise.”

Added Guptill on Friday: “He’s a superstar. He’s one of the best players in college hockey right now.”

Though Nieves might not statistically be among the top-10 centers in college hockey, he can certainly skate circles around nearly every member of the fourth-ranked team in the nation. It would be misguided to assume that Michigan lives and dies with Nieves. But Michigan (4-1-1 overall) cannot afford for Nieves to not produce in these games. And for Nieves, it’s a matter of simply skating at top-speed in practice as often as when the stands are filled.

“If you drive around in your car on low gear all the time, you get used to it,” Berenson said. “Until someone shows you you’ve got high gear.”

It’s also a matter of knowing when to change gears. Once Nieves finds the confidence to press the pedal, the challenge will be to know when to press the pedal and when to lay off.

“You also can’t drive your car 100 miles an hour when you’re 50 feet from a stop sign,” Berenson said. “When you’re on the highway, though, that’s your opportunity. Hockey is a game of intensity, but it’s a game of short sprints and then every so often you get a chance, and that’s when Boo needs to know he has that extra gear.

“With cement trucks out there, you have to decide how fast you’re willing to go. There’s a risk involved in using that speed. Do you want to go or is it safer to stay here?”