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Special teams, once a weakness, is now a strength

Patrick Barron/Daily
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By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 10, 2013

How do you know when a special-teams unit is special?

When it scores multiple power-play goals in back-to-back games, it might be performing above average. Or when it scores a shorthanded goal, it could be special. If it kills off every single penalty it takes, it too may qualify as special.

So, when the Michigan hockey team scored four goals with an extra man in its sweep it looked the part. But this was the first round of the CCHA playoffs, so it added a shorthanded goal for good measure. To top the weekend off, it didn’t allow a single power-play goal.

In its sweep of Northern Michigan, the special teams certainly were special.

It was the first time this year that the Wolverines scored multiple power-play goals in both games of a series.

“Things just seem to be clicking right now,” said junior defenseman Mac Bennett. “We’re getting chances, we’re getting pucks at the net and they seem to be going in. Everything’s just going well for us.”

There was a point midway through the season when the special teams gave the Wolverines fits, and the power play seemed more like a disadvantage. When it was swept by Alaska, Michigan allowed three power-play goals and a shorthanded goal while connecting only once in 12 extra-man opportunities.

“We have a list of things that have to go well for our team to do well, and one of them is special teams,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We’ve struggled with that off and on all year. We’ve lamented the power play, and we lamented the penalty kill.

“Our kids have worked hard and our coaches have worked hard to get better, and now can see it coming and we’ve had a lot of progress in both areas.”

Instead of cracking under the pressure to score as they had earlier in the season, the Wolverines look relaxed. There were signs of progress on the special teams in sweeps of Ohio State and Ferris State — they surrendered just two power-play goals in four games.

Now, after the sweep, the Wolverines are killing off 83.9 percent of penalties and sit second in the CCHA and 23rd in the nation in power-play goals per game, converting on 18.5 percent of chances.

And while the Wolverines scored as many goals with an extra man as the Wildcats scored the entire series, the strong performance was more important for gaining momentum.

Just 1:39 into the game on Saturday, sophomore forward Andrew Sinelli went to the box for hooking and left Michigan at an early disadvantage. But the Wolverines closed off the middle of the ice, leaving Northern Michigan poor looks at the net, and then cleared the puck after rebounds to kill the penalty.

And 30 seconds after the penalty ended, sophomore forward Alex Guptill scored to give his team the early lead.

The special-teams unit embodies a larger part of Michigan’s improved play: the increased effort put forth and better looks at net.

Senior forward Kevin Lynch’s shorthanded goal on Friday night came after he played up the ice instead of waiting back. Lynch grabbed a turnover near the blue line and took the puck to the net where he gave himself a clear look.

But the special teams don’t require something special at practice. Instead of waiting for the perfect chance at the net, the Wolverines are swinging freely at the net.

“We talked about simplicity over the last couple weeks and getting pucks to the net and getting guys to the front of the net,” Copp said. “Speaking for myself, my goal was a rebound goal, (Kevin) Lynch’s goal last night was a rebound goal, so simplicity is really what we’ve been focused on.”

Ultimately, Michigan’s special teams will only be special if they are good enough to create wins. Six straight wins at the perfect time qualifies as special.