Legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks used to yell “legs feed the wolf” at his 1980 Olympic team.
In 2020, the Michigan hockey team’s roster featured skill on both ends of the ice. But still, its legs couldn’t deliver a feast every night against faster opponents like Minnesota and Wisconsin.
If last Saturday’s 7-1 exhibition win over Bowling Green is any indication, though, the Wolverines could be a few strides ahead this season.
From the early minutes of the game, speed dominated Michigan’s game plan. When sophomore forward Matty Beniers found sophomore forward Kent Johnson alone at center ice, Johnson used his legs to widen the gap between himself and the Falcons defenders. That gave him plenty of time to fool Bowling Green goaltender Zach Rose as a quick flick of his stick deposited the first goal of the season.
The same legwork that led to the goal also extended many of the Wolverines’ scoring threats. As hard shots ricocheted off Rose, the puck skittered toward the boards where the Falcons’ defensemen had a chance to dump it out. Michigan’s speed often won out in the ensuing footraces and, combined with their physical presence, it generated plenty of shots.
“Every team is going to be pre-scouting our skill,” sophomore forward Brendan Brisson said on Friday after the game. “But it’s about playing hard in the hard areas, getting pucks deep when we have to and getting pucks back quicker so we can use our skill in the right moments.”
On Saturday, the Wolverines executed those offensive moves faster than they did last season. In a split second during the first period, Michigan set up a 1-3-1 power play. Bowling Green couldn’t account for the ensuing flurry of quick passes, and Brisson skated away with a goal.
The Wolverines’ transition game relied on its speed advantage. Quick strides down the wings opened up clean odd-man rushes and lagging defenders couldn’t break up the zone entries that led to long offensive setups. Michigan controlled the pace of play all game by using that speed, unlike last season.
Freshman defenseman Luke Hughes played a prominent role in that, lurking closer to the top of the faceoff circle even when the Falcons threatened a breakout. Many defensemen playing that far up would get burned. But Hughes’s confidence in his skating ability proved effective as he chased down anyone that slipped by him with ease. That kind of confidence — a trait Michigan coach Mel Pearson said reminded him of his brother Quinn Hughes — allows Hughes to make the most of his ice time.
The same rang true for senior forward Jimmy Lambert, whose speed looked deadly in the bottom six. Lambert, Hughes and junior forward Eric Ciccolini swarmed Rose as the first period waned. With a little over 50 seconds on the clock, all three crashed the net as Bowling Green’s defenders could only watch. Before they could even poke their sticks at the loose puck, the red light cast a glowing aura on the goal. The Wolverines’ speed won again.
Speed in the bottom six could be an X-factor against tough opponents. As Michigan’s stars draw the undivided attention of opposing defensemen, speed like Lambert’s can bring advantages against worn-out players. That difference could lead to secondary scoring in close contests, something that didn’t often happen in intense games last year.
While there’s no guarantee that this speed will stack up against teams like Duluth or Minnesota — teams full of talent and conditioned to a T — the increase in speed could bode well for forcing the pace of play down the line. With as much talent as this roster boasts, the Wolverines can turn that speed into additional goals.
If Michigan can keep up its speed, the wolf will be eating more often than not.