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DETROIT — With sophomore defenseman Owen Power playing in the Winter Olympics, a key pillar of the No. 4 Michigan hockey team’s defense disappeared. His missing offensive facilitation and lockdown defense piled extra weight on the Wolverines’ remaining defense.

Extra weight that Luke Hughes can carry.

Capping off an explosive offensive series against Michigan State, the freshman defenseman left his signature on almost every part of Michigan’s “Duel in the D” 7-3 victory. Additional responsibilities conjured up a more mature and focused Hughes.

“He’s become more reliable,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Not made as many mistakes, played more physical. And then he hasn’t lost anything offensively.”

That growth centers around Hughes’s best quality: his speed. Instead of purely racing opponents to the puck like earlier in the season, Hughes avoided overcommitting by hovering near the blue line.

It might seem like that kind of usage would neutralize Hughes’s skating ability. His offensive identity centers around rushing into the play with his forwards and blowing past defenders.

In reality, it only bought Hughes more time to generate offense. Lurking near the blue line, he pounced when Michigan State thought it could exit the zone. Committed to breaking out of their zone, the Spartans found themselves a step behind and gave up abundant grade-A shots.

Hughes’s positioning also opened up his defensive game. Often the last line of defense when Michigan State entered the zone, he opened up his stride and caught up to tie up the puck carrier. Time and time again, he won those battles thanks to his quickness.

“(His skating ability) makes him tough to play against,” Michigan State defenseman Nash Nienhuis said. “He’s just a smooth skater and he gets up the ice.”

Nash and the Spartans felt that impact firsthand when they began a five minute power play in the second period. Instead of generating chances themselves, they watched as Hughes stole a puck along the boards and began a 2-on-1 rush with Lambert. In just a few seconds, Michigan State found itself down another goal.

Any good defenseman can win puck battles and initiate breakouts, but Hughes’s volume of key plays on both ends of the ice makes him a versatile asset for the Wolverines. Dominant play like that has prevented Michigan from feeling the pain of missing a star like Power.

But the real benefit comes later when the Olympians return.

With an increased workload, Hughes has proven he can rise to the occasion. It’s a testament to his growth that the Wolverines haven’t stepped back while missing Power’s services. Much of that has to do with what remains of Michigan’s back end.

“It’s nice to know you have a Nick Blankenburg you can throw on the ice,” Pearson said. “Or the opposition (will think) ‘here comes Owen Power, here comes Luke Hughes, here comes (Jacob) Truscott, here comes (Ethan) Edwards.”

That kind of depth is important, because Hughes isn’t a perfect defenseman, neither is anyone on the Wolverines’ blue line. 

But he doesn’t have to be. Hughes can transfer his recent dominance into his inevitably shorter minutes when Power comes back. Having that kind of gamebreaker in Michigan’s back pocket gives it a crucial advantage as the postseason looms.

You don’t just replace a No. 1 defenseman overnight — that is, unless you’ve got another one on your roster