Mark Burns: Better defensive play would get 'M' to St. Paul

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BY MARK BURNS
Daily Sports Editor
Published February 21, 2011

Just over a month ago, I wrote a column about the Michigan hockey team’s irrelevance on the national scene. It was sitting in second place behind Notre Dame in the CCHA, but it still hadn’t shown me anything.

If you wanted to have a conversation about the Wolverines possibly competing for a national title this season, I would have told you, “Sorry, but this team just doesn’t have it in them. Maybe next year Red Berenson will win his third NCAA title.”

“You hope to peak at the right time,” senior forward Louie Caporusso added on Jan. 13. “You want to stay positive obviously, and you want to say that the team is headed in the right direction. I mean, that’s the obvious answer.

“The real answer will lie in what we do from here on out. I mean, you can speculate and you can predict that you think your team is going in the right direction, but it’s not going to do much if you’re not making that happen.”

Following those comments, Michigan swept four of five conference series — three of which have come in the friendly confines of Yost Ice Arena. During that stretch, Berenson has received stellar goaltending from senior Shawn Hunwick, and barring any season-ending injury, it looks like Michigan will ride the Sterling Heights, Mich. native for the rest of the season.

Some of Michigan’s big guns have also resurfaced, with the likes of sophomores Chris Brown and Kevin Lynch combining for eight goals in that time span.

So, in a sense, Michigan is going in the right direction. But there’s just one slight issue — defense.

Don’t get me wrong. At times this season, Michigan’s team defense has been pretty solid. Just ask the world-record setting crowd in attendance at The Big Chill. The Wolverines currently rank 10th nationally, allowing just 2.38 goals per game.

But despite the their success in the past six weeks, it seems that during every press conference, the comments about playing better defensively surface.

This past Friday, after Michigan’s 6-3 win over Western Michigan, Berenson called a few of the Broncos’ goals “too easy,” and added that the team might have been a little too relaxed in its own end.

And it’s not just coming from the coaching staff — the players are being candid and calling a spade a spade.

“We emphasized tightening it up a little bit,” junior defenseman Greg Pateryn said following Friday’s game. “We were too loose after the second period. They got 17 shots there in the second, and we wanted to focus on defense and keep as many chances out as we could.”

You could pinpoint other areas of the Michigan hockey team and possibly say, “Hey, the power play has been hit or miss for most of the season. That’s where the Wolverines need the most work.”

Or how about, “They still don’t have a super-star player who can take over any game at the drop of a hat.”

No, the fact still remains: more attention to detail in the defensive zone and a better awareness of the opposing players on the ice will bring Michigan into national contention.

The Wolverines are clearly headed in the right direction. To say anything else would be downright wrong. A few tweaks here and there with the defensive mindset of the team, and you could be purchasing just a few more postseason tickets.

The road’s paved, and the car's gassed up and ready to go.

Now it’s just time for Michigan to point it north to St. Paul, Minnesota and the Frozen Four.

— Burns can be reached at burnmark@umich.edu