By Michael Laurila, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 3, 2012
MARQUETTE — A wide-open one-time goal can be difficult to come by in hockey.
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Having the goalie completely out of position and the puck fall right into your lap for an easy goal is every hockey player’s dream.
But that was exactly what the majority of Northern Michigan’s goals looked like on Saturday night as the Wildcats defeated the No. 8 Michigan hockey team 4-3.
It wasn’t a new theme either. The night before, Northern Michigan tallied three power-play goals in the second period during Michigan’s overtime victory. It was the first time the Wolverines had allowed three power-play goals in a single period since Oct. 25, 2008. And the penalty-kill unit allowed these same kinds of easy, point-blank goals.
The penalty kill looked flustered and confused on Friday. On all but one of the goals, someone appeared to miss an assignment as a Wildcat player would receive a pass across the ice for a wide-open shot into an empty net.
Though freshman goaltender Steve Racine allowed four goals on the night, the young netminder wasn’t all to blame for the struggles.
These issues come just weeks after Michigan started the season a perfect 10-for-10 on the penalty kill. The success of the unit enabled the Wolverines to concentrate on other areas of the game.
“Everyone doing the little things,” senior defenseman Mac Bennett said when asked about the success of the penalty kill after the Rochester Institute of Technology series earlier this month. “People are getting in front of shots, getting the stick on the puck. They are where they’re supposed to be.”
The gritty, scrappy play that Bennett had attributed to the early success was lacking on Friday. Players were not in the right places, pucks found their way through the entire Michigan defense and the puck was rarely cleared.
“They were getting sticks on pucks and deflecting them in, and we were on our heels,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson on Friday. “There’s no question. We did not look good on our penalty kill during the second period.”
Later in the game, after freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba earned a five-minute major for a hit to the head, the Wolverines were able to kill the entire penalty en route to a last-minute comeback. The unit appeared to have regained its confidence, especially in knowing that Racine could be a reliable option between the pipes.
On Saturday, though Northern Michigan didn’t score a single power-play goal, the same defensive miscues plagued Michigan. All four Wildcat goals came from just outside of the crease in the slot. Whether it was a missed assignment or confusion on where they needed to be, the Wolverines looked befuddled.
Berenson attributed this to problems in Michigan’s defensive-zone coverage. Whether it was on the power play on Friday or when both teams were at even strength on Saturday, the defensive effort was not up to par.
“It’s individuals being surprised that they didn’t see somebody or they thought this and ‘they went over to help you because you weren’t doing your job, and now all of a sudden no one is helping me,’ ” Berenson said on Saturday.
One issue defensively could be the absence of injured junior defenseman John Merrill, a pre-season First Team All-CCHA selection. The unit had been playing without him all season, though. On Saturday, with Trouba out for the game because of Friday’s penalty, the defensive corps was limited to just five players.
Whether it’s the defensive effort during the penalty kill or the defense as a whole, the glaring mistakes in the defensive zone were too much for Michigan to overcome this weekend, coming out with just two points. The mistakes will need to be corrected if the Wolverines hope to find success in the difficult CCHA.
“It’s a game of mistakes and we’re making too many right now,” Berenson said.