As the No. 2 Michigan hockey team shifts from out-of-conference matchups to Big Ten play, so too will its opponents’ style of play.
For the Wolverines, that is a welcome sight.
Michigan has tried to improve its physicality through the first few weeks of the season, but its strength really lies in its skill. Boasting four of the top five 2021 NHL draft picks and 13 NHL draftees overall, the Wolverines rely heavily on pure talent and beat opponents with their skating ability, speed and precision as opposed to grit.
Although emerging from their initial non-conference slate at 5-1, the scrappy hockey that Michigan’s opponents deployed throughout the stretch required the Wolverines to claw back from deficits and play hyper-physical hockey that limited their ability to out-skill the opposition. This culminated in a difficult home-and-home series split with then No. 17 Western Michigan.
“Some of these other teams are just going to dump and chase and pound the heck out of you,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “That’s the formula, you know, beat you on their power play or get a couple turnovers and that’s the game.”
Facing such a physical smash-mouth game plan, Pearson was forced to opt for grizzled, physical veteran skaters over his young and savvy NHL draft selections more often, negating some of the Wolverines’ skill advantage. Their superb power play unit would sometimes struggle to set up its surgical scheme, instead being met with four skaters looking to lay hits on the blue line.
In a raucous road environment like Lawson Ice Arena at Western Michigan, heavy hitting engages the crowd and motivates the opposition. The style gave Michigan’s talented skaters fits all night, spilling them all over the ice and making it harder for them to find their rhythm and out-skate opponents.
“It just gets to be like football on ice,” Pearson said of matchups with the Broncos. “It’s a little over the top, I’m ok with the physical part of hockey … (but) we’re really dumbing it down, taking a lot of skill out of the college game to play a certain style.”
Big Ten hockey, on the other hand, is defined by skill, speed and open ice play. More often than not, the Wolverines outclass the conference in that regard.
There’s still room for improvement as Michigan’s conference schedule commences, despite the early season success. When facing teams that emphasize scheme over physicality, the Wolverines’ talented crop of young skaters will look to take advantage and out-perform their counterparts with dazzling displays of finesse and graceful motion on the ice.
Should it play to its potential, Michigan can use its Big Ten schedule to build chemistry on the ice and fine tune its well-oiled offensive attack.
The Wolverines are already scoring the second-most goals per game in the nation and sport the fifth-best power-play percentage. Having the opportunity to play open-ice hockey instead of jamming, pounding play will only improve those numbers and their ability to overwhelm opponents. A more cohesive unit — one forged by the open play of the Big Ten — will be harder for more physical teams to slow down later in the season and into the playoffs.
“I like to think the Big Ten’s an entertainment business, the Big Ten is in the skill development business,” Pearson said. “… (Skaters play) a little more wide open hockey. That doesn’t mean it’s not physical, that doesn’t mean it’s not hard working … but just a different game as far as just being, like I said, a little more schemes.”
Michigan looks to capitalize on Big Ten play, beginning with Wisconsin on Thursday night.
Should it find success, the open ice could open doors for a long postseason run.