Nearly three weeks ago, the state of the Michigan hockey team was in flux.
Prior to the Ohio State series, the Wolverines had only trended upward. Senior netminder Steve Racine was playing his best hockey of his life. The feared CCM line — freshman Kyle Connor and juniors JT Compher and Tyler Motte — was scoring endless goals and the defense was finally erasing the kinks that plagued it in past years.
Then came the series against the Buckeyes.
The Wolverines traveled to Columbus, eager to continue their strong season, but couldn’t forge ahead. They let in 13 goals and were swept — one coach said prior to the series that Michigan’s goal was to limit the Buckeyes to five goals on the weekend. It was a giant step backward, and the team was playing a type of hockey that you don’t want to play with the postseason just weeks away.
But it didn’t faze them. The Wolverines went on to promptly sweep Penn State by a margin of 13-2 before beating the Nittany Lions again, 7-1, and Minnesota, 5-3, to capture the Big Ten Tournament championship.
If you ask the team what changed defensively, they’ll tell you it was a whole-team effort. Every player became accountable: forwards, defensemen and Racine.
Starting with the forwards, Compher mentioned throughout the year that the forwards needed to backcheck more. But backchecking was all but absent in Columbus.
However, the captain’s message rang deep during the Big Ten Tournament.
“We won more battles, we were harder working, harder to play against, especially against Minnesota,” Compher said. “Our ‘D’ did a really good job gapping up and taking away space from their forwards. It was probably the hardest our team has backchecked all year, and it really took away a lot of what they were trying to do.”
Added Berenson: “A lot of things had to happen and our team battled harder as a group. But then there were individuals who made plays that saved goals, which are just as important as the individuals who scored goals, starting with Racine and then (sophomore defenseman) Cutler Martin on that two-on-one.”
Berenson referenced, perhaps, the play of the game. And it wasn’t another goal from the CCM line. Knotted at three midway through the period after Michigan let in three unanswered goals, Minnesota capitalized on a turnover to force a two-on-one opportunity. With the way the game’s momentum was shifting, it felt like the Gophers would capitalize.
Instead, Martin decided to challenge the puck-carrier head-on, diving toward him and knocking the puck toward Racine, who scurried the puck away from the danger zone.
“I told Marty that it was the play of the year for him,” Racine said. “It was an awesome play. He took a chance and it worked out.”
Added sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski: “We work on two-on-ones a lot throughout the week and it seems to have paid off. I don’t know if that was safest play or way to do it, but it was one of the plays of the game in my opinion.”
Martin’s play shows that when Michigan takes chances, it plays its best hockey. When the defensemen have pinched down the boards to keep the puck in the offensive zone, more goals have occurred.
In the Ohio State series, the defensemen got away from that. They tried to play to close to home, allowing the game come to them rather than being the playmaker.
“I think we are buying into what is in front of us. We know we can make a run,” Werenski said. “When we want to, and commit to playing defense, we can do it. It’s just, as a team, it hasn’t been there all season, which is a tough pill to swallow thinking about what we could’ve done earlier in the year.
“I think when you can gap up on the other forwards and not give them much time to make plays, it helps us a lot. It’s been nice having our forwards do a good job coming back hard and it gives us more confidence to step up and make plays.”
Then there’s Racine, who has looked like a bona fide goaltender for the majority of the year, but has also suffered through down weekends like the one three weeks ago in Columbus.
“He didn’t have his best series at Ohio State and he was the first to admit that,” Compher said. “We’re going to help as much as possible, and when he gives you big saves like the one he had on that two-on-one last night, that was a game-changer. If he can make those saves and we can put in our opportunities, then we can beat anyone.”
If that’s true, it has to start with the forwards backchecking hard and the defensemen playing aggressive. The rest should take care of itself.