The Michigan hockey team departed Yost Ice Arena on Saturday with far more thorns than roses.
The Wolverines’ marred defensive performance was composed of too many giveaways, too many goals given up and too few meticulous passes — problems that were only exacerbated by an absent offensive spark.
What can get lost in translation of this season’s repetitive plot is the noteworthy talent of individuals in the defensive core — in particular, its veteran leadership.
Senior defenseman Sam Piazza and junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi have emerged as the Wolverines’ premier defensive pairing on the ice, and — as two of four selected alternate captains this season — have seen their influence expanded off of it as well.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson noted that the defensive unit has already had considerable success.
“You have confidence putting them out against anybody,” Pearson said. “Sam is good with the puck and handles the puck very well. He is not as physical, you know, Joe is ‘big and strong Joseph’ and can be physical. They seem to have some chemistry together, they play off of each other, so they are in sync, and that’s important.”
While the Wolverines have seen many changes in player combinations this year, Piazza and Cecconi have remained a constant duo. And their talents happened to be on display this past weekend, which was otherwise ignominious for Michigan’s squad.
Friday night, off a cross-ice pass from Cecconi, Piazza knocked in the opening goal of the game — good for his first of the season. The following evening, Cecconi was the lone Wolverine to score, equalizing the game in the second period before Ohio State’s offensive onslaught began.
Their ability to step up on offense while Michigan’s forwards struggled to do so against the Buckeyes highlighted the pair’s versatile strengths.
“Obviously, we’ve stayed together this whole time so far, so we’ve been doing something right,” Cecconi said. “We talk a lot on the ice, off the ice, and we have good chemistry. We know where the other person is going to be, and we both have pretty good hockey IQ, so that goes a long way.”
Pearson added: “You’ve got to play sound defensively first and foremost, and then pick your spots offensively when you’re jumping up in a play. I think for the most part, they’ve done a good job at that.”
Part of what has made the duo cohesive this season is the variability in their contributions and improvements.
For Cecconi, it has been his well-roundedness as a player.
Netting 10 points over the first 14 games, Cecconi has been the largest offensive contributor from Michigan’s blue line. He has already surpassed his sophomore season total of eight points and that, paired with his physicality and work ethic in the defensive zone, has made for a dynamic combination.
Part of Cecconi’s development has stemmed from the formative experience he had last year, playing on the 2017 U.S. National Junior Team. During his sophomore season, Cecconi was the sole Wolverine — and just one of 23 players nationally — selected for the team’s final roster. His team went on to claim the gold medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship in January.
“I think he has grown as a player and a leader, and is really starting to blossom,” Pearson said.
Piazza has demonstrated his talents in another way this season — through his ability to stand his ground in the defensive zone.
The senior ranks eighth nationally in blocked shots with an average of 2.42 per game, a huge reason as to why Michigan has found recent success overall in shot blocking. Rather than laying out to block shots, Piazza prefers to stand in a lane and disrupt the opposition with a good gap and decisive stick placement.
“I think we have complementing styles,” Piazza said. “Chico is really an all-around good defenseman. And I think in the past you would have classified him as more of a defensive guy, but he has a ton of points this year, too. For me, he is really easy to play with. You always know where he is, which is a good thing. I think we play well off each other, and it’s been a pleasure playing with him.”
In addition to a diverse set of skills, the two have seemingly polar personalities. Piazza tends to be more soft-spoken, while Cecconi makes his presence known.
But according to Pearson, this divergence is a large component of what makes the two work, particularly when it comes to their roles as captains.
“Sam is more of a quiet leader,” Pearson said. “He just goes about his business, he’s good in the classroom, he comes to the rink and he plays. He’s a good player. He lets his playing do his talking.
“Joseph is a little more outgoing, with a little more energy, and I guess he’s a guy that people gravitate to because that’s how he is. And that’s why they complement each other I think, too.”
Both of them know that despite their experience and leadership, there is still significant room for improvement — for themselves and the rest of the defensive core. And going back hard for pucks, crisper clearances and stronger communication are all at the top of that list.
Yet while players of all ages have the capacity for growth, the efforts of these older defensemen are key in helping younger Wolverines develop their own game, as they are exposed to exemplary defensive styles of play.
“They are both older and have been around,” Pearson said. “I think it’s good (for younger players) to take in some things — I don’t want to say steal from another person — but just to say ‘Hey, you know what, I want to be able to do that, and be like him in some ways’, and I think that’s a positive.”
Perhaps their veteran leadership will bring Michigan’s defense back on the rails.