It takes a certain type of player to kill penalties. The type of player who’s at his best when playing in his own zone without the puck. The type of player that a coach trusts in the defensive zone. Rarely do a team’s top scorers kill penalties.
But in the Michigan hockey team’s two weekend games against Arizona State, many of its top offensive contributors saw minutes while playing down a man on the Sun Devils’ 10 power-play opportunities. Junior Jimmy Lambert, sophomore Johnny Beecher and freshmen Matty Beniers and Thomas Bordeleau all featured prominently on the Wolverines’ penalty kill, as Arizona State scored just one power-play goal on the weekend.
The inclusion of these four players led to an aggressive shorthanded approach and many scoring opportunities with a player in the penalty box. While Michigan did not score a shorthanded goal, it attempted eight shorthanded shots over the two games.
“We have a number of players who can not only kill penalties, but be a threat shorthanded because of that hockey IQ and whatnot, and the speed and the skill,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “So, we look to … score more goals than we did last year shorthanded. We’ll take some chances and some risks, and we’re gonna allow them to do that when we are shorthanded.”
Most striking about the Wolverines’ penalty kill was the prominence of Beniers and Bordeleau on the ice. It’s rare for a coach to trust a freshman enough to consistently put them on the ice in the defensive zone against an opponent's top scorers, let alone when down a man.
Entering the season, Pearson emphasized how much trust he had in Beniers in all situations because of his strong two-way ability. Beniers justified this trust against the Sun Devils, forcing turnovers and making smart decisions with the puck while shorthanded.
“He’s a low risk, high reward player,” Pearson said. “That’s what we like in our players. But he’s committed to defense too. He’s not just an offensive player. He’s really committed to defense, and he’s not afraid to block shots.”
But Bordeleau created the best shorthanded chance of the weekend. With time winding down in the second period of Saturday’s game, Bordeleau deflected a pass and slid the puck out of the defensive zone. He then chased Arizona State defenseman Tanner Hickey down the ice and as Hickey turned to carry the puck back up the ice, Bordeleau pick-pocketed him and drove to the net. He rang a shot off the post, the echo resonating around the arena, leaving Pearson shocked it didn’t go in.
“Thomas is really good on face-offs. He’s really good there so we’re gonna put him out there sometimes just to win the face off and get off,” Pearson said. “But he’s a smart player too, and you can see he’s got good speed. He’s got a really good stick, he anticipates well. So he’s a guy who can kill penalties and create some offense by doing that, and some shorthanded opportunities.”
While the Wolverines’ penalty kill was one of the many highlights of opening weekend, not all games will be as one-sided as this weekend’s were. Future games may come down to one goal, and Pearson knows that Michigan will have to cut down on the amount of penalties it takes.
“I think our emotions got the best of us on Sunday. Retaliatory penalties,” Pearson said. “We got caught up in some of the things that were going on, we have to be more focused. … They’re not good penalties. If you’re going to save a goal, that’s one thing, or protect a teammate, but I didn’t like the penalties we took.”
If Pearson gets his wish, the Wolverines will take fewer penalties going forward, but that aggressive mindset when shorthanded will still be there. With the talent Michigan has on its penalty kill, eventually it will convert.
“My old coach would always tell me, they’re putting their five most offensive players out there, and they’re not usually very good at defense,” Beniers said. “So if we have an opportunity to pounce on them and make them play defense, let’s try … to get some momentum on the penalty kill.”
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