Entering last weekend’s series against Michigan State, the No. 2 Michigan hockey team had converted on just two of its previous 12 power plays. The typically dominant unit was ineffective, out of sync and searching for answers.
Over the weekend, the Wolverines found those answers.
Michigan went 4-for-8 on the power play against the Spartans. The 50% mark was well above its 26.6% power play conversion rate on the season — already good for sixth-best in the nation — and it came without the Wolverines’ four Olympians.
With a reshuffled roster, Michigan deployed a re-tooled power play in an attempt to break out of its slump. That started with returning to the basics.
“(We) simplified it,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said of the power play unit’s success. “… We weren’t fooling around with the puck and fiddling with it.”
The simplified approach accounted for the absence of several power play staples in sophomore forwards Brendan Brisson, Kent Johnson and Matty Beniers, along with sophomore defenseman Owen Power. It adjusted for the varying skill sets of the skaters who stepped up to run the first line of the unit.
And the plan worked to perfection as the Wolverines’ power play seemingly generated goal after goal.
When the highly skilled Olympians are at their best on the man advantage, they typically take their time setting up opportunities. Using their ice vision and stickwork, they’d often ring the puck around the offensive zone multiple times with quick and sometimes flashy passes. The constant puck movement eventually becomes too much for opposing defenses to handle, leaving skaters like Brisson open on the wing for his signature one-timer, or Johnson in the slot for a redirect.
In the Wolverines’ 2-for-12 dry spell, the puck often stayed on skaters’ sticks for too long as they attempted to beat their defender with their speed and stickwork. Although the one-on-one matchups can be beatable, the lack of puck movement makes defenses’ jobs easier, enabling them to hold advantageous positions on the ice.
The Olympians’ departure provided Michigan the nudge it needed to re-work the man advantage.
“If it’s not working in one area then you gotta change it a little bit,” Pearson said. “I think (assistant coach) Brandon Naurato did a good job recognizing that and then changing the power play.”
Those changes were evident on the Wolverines’ first power-play goal of the weekend. Freshman defenseman Luke Hughes got the puck near the blue line off the power play’s opening faceoff, snapping it through traffic for the goal.
The goal illustrated the blueprint of Michigan’s power play success over the weekend, with three of the four goals scored from longer distance. Instead of ringing it around for a closer shot, the Wolverines took quick shots from afar. Clogging the slot with skaters, Michigan found success as Spartan goaltender Drew DeRidder struggled to track down the puck.
“There’s nothing fancy about it,” Pearson said. “… Simple shots to the net and traffic, and that’s all it really was.”
Even the one power-play goal scored from close range over the weekend came from gritty play in the slot as opposed to looking for space to create one-timers. Freshman forward Dylan Duke whacked at the puck in the slot in front of DeRidder as two Michigan State skaters jostled for it, shanking the puck off a Spartan and into the net.
With key series against No.11 Ohio State and No. 12 Notre Dame looming to end the regular season — teams the Wolverines have compiled a 1-3 record against thus far — adjustments will be key.
Michigan’s resurged power play revealed that it has multiple ways to score. If defenses try to take away one-timers on the wing, the Wolverines’ sharp-shooting defenseman can score through a congested slot.
When Michigan’s Olympians return, they’ll find an adjusted power play that will stretch defenses thin. The changes could be the difference in the tight race for top of the Big Ten.
“(Former Michigan coach Red) Berenson told me way back in the day when I was running the power play, ‘If it ain’t working, you gotta change it,’ ” Pearson said. “… Change is hard sometimes, but nice to see we made some changes and we had some success.”