Flinch once and it’s over.
It’s the kind of reality that penalty killers have to be cognisant of. If they can’t block a passing lane or tie up a screener, opponents can score a knock-out blow.
Recently, those punches have landed. Michigan’s penalty kill has struggled in recent weeks, as Niagara and Notre Dame went a combined 4-for-15 against the Wolverines. Those goals came from the opponents’ net-front presence and Michigan’s own inability to block shots.
The solution: put Garrett Van Wyhe and Johnny Beecher on the ice.
The senior and junior forwards have terrorized power plays with their ability to intercept passes and corral rebounds. By clogging lanes and holding the puck for long stretches, they’ve mixed responsible penalty killing with high-danger shorthanded offense.
In situations where the slightest shift in stick position can hint at what’s about to happen, Van Wyhe and Beecher know what to watch for. It’s an intuition forged from being blue-chip penalty killers for the better part of their careers.
“I think that (veteran experience) brings a lot to our team,” freshman defenseman Luke Hughes said. “Just the speed and penalty kill and a lot of smarts.”
It’s easy to see why when the duo is on the ice. Shifting around on their skates and flipping their sticks to shut down passing lanes, Van Wyhe and Beecher dare opponents to take a shot. It’s like playing poker, and they’ve cracked the shooters’ tells.
And when skaters tip their hands, Van Wyhe and Beecher aren’t afraid to throw themselves in the shooting lane to block those shots.
“We all can get better at shot blocking, and that’s something where you have to pay the price,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “(Beecher) has done a really good job this year at that.”
The Wolverines can shut down chances in their own end, but a significant part of killing penalties involves exiting the defensive zone. Van Wyhe and Beecher aren’t afraid to charge up the ice as their defensemen skate toward the bench, and they’ve been instrumental in generating opportunities while down a man.
“We have guys who can skate,” Pearson said. “If there’s a turnover they can really get after it, and we encourage that. We want to see more of that.”
But taking chances can be risky, as rebounds can pop off goalies’ pads and onto opponents’ sticks. It’s a balancing act of taking shots without creating a rush the other way, and so far the duo has remained steady.
Van Wyhe showed that against Niagara, when he killed off a penalty with sophomore forward Matty Beniers. Snagging an errant pass for a two-man breakaway, Van Wyhe chose to pass it to Beniers instead of risking a tight-angle shot that could have bounced the other way.
But that discipline can be lacking in other parts of Van Wyhe and Beecher’s game. Van Wyhe took a game misconduct in overtime against Notre Dame, and Beecher took a hooking call the next game in one of Michigan’s most undisciplined periods of the season. In order to kill penalties, they can’t be in the box themselves.
Despite those troubles, Van Wyhe and Beecher have turned into a go-to unit for the Michigan penalty kill. Their ability to break up lanes and block shots gives them an edge against even the best power plays.
Now, it’s those opponents trying not to flinch.