End-to-end hockey. Battles on the boards. Body checks, poke checks and forechecks. Anything to bother a player and get position in between a Michigan player and the net.
That’s the first phrase Michigan coach Mel Pearson used to describe the scrappy play style the team had faced thus far. It was gritty. It was extremely physical. The Wolverines had to fight for every inch of the ice.
They saw it last weekend against No. 10 Clarkson — every loose puck required a battle. The space in front of the net was clogged by Golden Knight players. They outworked Michigan without the puck, and the moment the Wolverines had the puck on their stick a Clarkson player was preparing for a hit. These little details ultimately led to a loss and a tie.
Michigan will see the same style of play again this weekend with Lake Superior.
While all teams aim to play with a high level of physicality, in the Big Ten, speed and skill reign supreme over strength and size. There’s much more open ice to skate and make plays. But non conference opponents like the Golden Knights and Lakers force the Wolverines to adjust their play style slightly.
“We played Lake State last year,” said senior forward Jake Slaker. “They definitely play the same kind of similar style (as Clarkson). Kind of a grindy, simple game so now we’re expecting what we had last weekend so we can change a few things and be ready for the weekend.”
All week in practice, Michigan has been prepping and fine-tuning its play in the wake of the series with the Clarkson.
There’s been a lot of battle drills, contact drills — really anything to get the team further attuned to the physical play. Ultimately, its focus is on competing hard, especially from the get-go. Just like last weekend, the Wolverines know if they want to win, they have to get off to an early lead. They cannot afford to play from behind.
Last year, when Michigan played Lake Superior, the games almost didn’t resemble hockey. Whether the puck was nearby or not, the Lakers were hitting hard. The Friday night game had 18 penalties, and Saturday’s had 10.
And Lake Superior has the personnel to make that play style work. Its roster is stacked with big, strong defensemen. Only one of its blue line players measures under six feet tall.
Offensively, the Wolverines aren’t necessarily known for being physical. Against the Golden Knights, the forwards showed they could handle matching up against defenders with a size advantage. But playing a stronger team gives Michigan a chance to win with a different skill — speed.
“It’s nice when you play those physical teams,” Slaker said. “Usually they’re a little bit slower and clunkier. It’s a time for the fast guys like myself to use that to our advantage.”
While playing a gritty team offers the Wolverines a chance to display their quickness, there’s also a catch — less open ice to play. Big, physical teams take away space to move the puck in the offensive zone, particularly around the net. It’s an issue Michigan battled with last weekend, and will have to overcome this weekend to have a chance of winning.
“As a team we’ve all agreed upon (the fact) that we need to drive the net better,” said fifth-year senior forward Jacob Hayhurst. “When we see shots going towards their net we need to get in front of their goalie’s eyes and drive the back post in order to create more scoring opportunities.”
Crashing the net will require the Wolverines to perfectly balance both speed and strength.
To make matters more difficult, the team will be without one of its most physical players, senior defenseman Griffin Luce. He was suspended one game after hitting a player from behind in the closing minutes of last Saturday’s game. In his place, another defender — maybe sophomore Jake Gingell or fifth-year senior Shane Switzer — will have to step up.
“Their forwards aren’t real big,” Pearson said. “They play strong, but we have to use our quickness and our speed. Would I like to have Griff in the line up? Yes. But Gingell is physical. Switzer is a big guy so I think we’ll be fine there.”
But after Clarkson, Michigan is better prepared to handle situations where every puck is a battle to get to. A game where ice space, especially in front of the net, won’t be easy to come by. And now, the Wolverines know what they’ll have to do to find success against a team that plays an extremely physical brand of hockey.