By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 16, 2010
For the No. 10 Michigan hockey team, the best offense has been a good defense — or more specifically, an offensively minded defense.
Through 12 games last season, the six-man defensive unit mustered just two goals. The snake-bitten Wolverines suffered a five-game losing streak while stumbling to a 5-7-0 record.
Hoping to avoid the early-season woes of last year, Michigan coach Red Berenson encouraged his defensemen to take a more aggressive mindset in the offensive zone.
With Michigan (5-2-1 CCHA, 6-3-3 overall) just a point away from first place in the conference at the 12-game mark this season, the defense seems to have taken Berenson’s advice to heart. The backliners have pelted opposing goaltenders with 92 shots, combining to score seven goals.
“Whenever the defense can chip in offensively, it’s a plus, especially when the offense isn’t scoring or it’s a low-scoring game,” junior defenseman Brandon Burlon said on Tuesday. “It’s always important to have the defense contributing on both ends … because offense comes from good defense.”
With about the three-quarters of the season remaining, Burlon leads the defense with three goals, a number that matches his total from last year.
According to Berenson, the increase in offensive output from the defense has been spurred by the ability of players like Burlon, who have the quickness and puck-handling skills to create scoring chances.
“We’re encouraging our ‘D,’ like everybody, to join the rush,” Berenson said. “We’re encouraging our forwards to get the puck back to the ‘D’ (so) they can get shots through. … We need scoring from our ‘D.’ I think every team values defensive scoring.”
Berenson acknowledges that the danger of a counterattack is magnified when defensemen play a larger role in the offensive zone. If a forward doesn’t pick up his defensive assignment, an offensive turnover can lead to a quality scoring chance on the other end of the ice.
“I don’t mind our defense jumping up on the rush, but I don’t want them trapped,” Berenson said. “For example, one of our ‘D’ got trapped when they scored that two-on-one goal on Friday night.
“You have to be ready to recover and get back. It’s a little bit of a catch-22 for a defenseman. If you’re an offensive-minded defenseman like Burlon, you’ve got to make smart decisions, when he stays up and when he stays back.”
To illustrate the risk of attacking too aggressively in the offensive zone, Berenson pointed to the third period of last Friday’s game against Notre Dame when sophomore defenseman Lee Moffie stepped up to challenge a Fighting Irish forward. Moffie’s check took him out of the play and Notre Dame took a two-on-one rush into the Michigan zone to score the game-winning goal.
“Moffie got trapped and pinched in,” Berenson said. “That’s a bad decision. But if you’re jumping up with the puck, at least you’re not trapped unless you make a bad play with the puck. So I think it’s very important that you pick your spots when you jump up.”
For Burlon, the offensive production is nice, but it won’t come at the expense of sound defense.
“I think it’s just pride in defense and taking care of the small detail that will lead to offense,” Burlon said. “We watch enough video, we work hard in practice, it’s just a matter of executing.”