It’s funny how different a narrative can be when a team allows four goals in back-to-back games.
You have a sloppy blue line that didn’t put enough effort — didn’t make those hustle plays. And you have a high-intensity, defensive match with a few bad bounces.
The difference? Well, it’s just that. The defensive intensity and effort.
It’s hard to justify giving up four goals in any game. Especially not from this veteran group of Michigan hockey defensemen that teammates have dubbed one of the best in the nation.
But after the weekend passed, with the fourth-ranked Wolverines dropping four goals and an empty-netter to lose 5-2 to Vermont and bouncing back for a 7-4, exhibition-game win against Waterloo, it became much easier to justify one than the other.
And not because one mattered and one didn’t.
In Friday’s matchup against the Catamounts, it was evident the hustle wasn’t there for the Michigan defense. Multiple times, the blueliners had possession of the puck in the offensive zone with little pressure put on them, but would let the possession go to waste by accidentally pushing it into neutral ice — forcing a reset.
“I thought we weren’t ready to play tonight,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after Friday’s game. “We weren’t really ready to play.”
Pearson made sure to emphasize “ready” the second time. Because it was as clear to him as it was clear to everyone else watching that the Wolverines had expected a cakewalk.
“I think we came into today with the mindset thinking it was going to be easy,” Pearson said. “I just didn’t like our stuff.”
On the defensive end, the Michigan defensemen, like sophomore Quinn Hughes, gambled on the puck, leaving odd-man rushes if their interception attempt went astray, putting junior goaltender Hayden Lavigne in tricky situations.
The Wolverines flipped the script the next day, though.
“Happy with today,” Pearson said. “Got a little sloppy at times, coming off a tough loss last night and a quick turnaround, you expected some of that.”
Coming out 4-1 after the 1st period, the Wolverines kicked the defensive gears into place. They put good pressure on the puck, preventing any dangerous situations. The one goal that Waterloo scored was from a bad bounce off a neutral-ice slapper, a puck freshman goaltender Strauss Mann would want back — but only partially.
“(Mann) laughing a little bit after the game,” Pearson said. “I think he’d like to have a couple back, he fell over a little bit at the end.”
The job for Mann became much easier with the increased defensive intensity. Late in the second period, freshman defenseman Jake Gingell dove for a loose puck in the offensive zone, sacrificing his body — which got sandwiched between a Warrior and the boards. It wasn’t a necessary play by any means. Michigan had a comfortable lead in a meaningless game, but it was the type of play that Gingell needed to make after the blueline’s poor showing Friday night.
Of course, in the latter half of the game, that intensity and effort that was the difference-maker disappeared. As Pearson noted, exhibition games are hard to play. When stats don’t count, when there’s not a lot on the line, intensity falls.
“We freelanced too much. We got a little bit sloppy,” Pearson said “ … And it’s a fine line. Just intensity, You lose your intensity, and things sort of just shut down for you.”
But that didn’t stop some players from making plays. In the middle of the third period, sophomore center Josh Norris had a careless turnover, accidentally tapping the puck to neutral ice with no one back.
It became a scramble for the puck, and the first one to reach it was a Waterloo player. But not far behind was senior defenseman Nicholas Boka. His hustle prevented a two-on-none situation, instead forcing the Warriors to reset the offensive push — giving time for all the players to return to the defensive zone.
“We have guys who can score,” Pearson said. “That’s not going to be an issue this year. We have enough guys who can score. We just have to continue to play on the right side of the puck.
“That’s my biggest concern. The goal scoring will come. If you’re forced to have to score five, it gets difficult. If you give up four goals, it gets tough to score five.”
Again, it’s funny the difference in narratives after games have been played. The question everyone posed before the season began was where the scoring production would come from after the “DMC” line — the top line responsible for 124 of the 365 points Wolverines produced last season — had departed. Now it will be who will step up on the defensive end, a problem few anticipated.
“I’m a little surprised that we’re not better, that we gave up as many goals that we did this weekend,” Pearson said. “So that’s going to be an area that we’re going to take care of.”