It’s what the No. 7 Michigan hockey team has been looking for since the start of the season and what it finally proved it found last weekend against No. 5 Wisconsin.
Going into the game, the penalty kill still looked like a potential achilles heel for the Wolverines. The Badgers currently have the most effective power play in the Big Ten and have converted on 33.6% of their opportunities. While Wisconsin only netted two power play goals during their first series against Michigan in November, the Wolverines gave them eight chances over the two games.
But watching Michigan face the Badgers for the second series this season, one thing is clear: The penalty kill unit that faced Wisconsin in Madison was an entirely different level than the one that took the ice in Ann Arbor almost two months later.
Through the first half of the season, Michigan struggled with staying out of the box. It gave up on average one power play goal per game on over 3.5 attempts. The Wolverines ended the season sixth in the league in penalty kill percentage, only ahead of Penn State while also being second in penalty kill attempts, only behind Ohio State.
The second half of the season has been a different story. Eight games past the break, Michigan has given up an average of one penalty kill goal every three games and lowered its average to just 2.5 penalty kill attempts per game. That’s all to say, the Wolverines are being more disciplined, and their penalty kill unit is getting more effective.
“We’re playing faster,” assistant coach Kris Mayotte said. “I think we’re managing the game better. And that’s a big part of it. A lot of penalties happen in transition: You’re going one way all of a sudden the play goes back the other way and you’re caught.”
In that sense, fewer penalties are just reflective of a stronger performance across the board.
Discipline hasn’t been an explicit goal for the Wolverines. While some teams will call penalties during practice to emphasize the point, Michigan has focused on the fundamentals.
Mayotte also attributes some of the change to the team’s commitment to its identity. In the early part of the season the Wolverines struggled to compete with larger, more physical teams. Since coming back from winter break, Michigan has clearly adjusted. It looks like the Wolverines have finally committed to their identity as a quick, skilled team and started to use it to their advantage.
“Our penalty kill was atrocious going into the winter break, we’ve gotten a little bit better in the last couple of weekends,” Mayotte said.
It follows basic logic that when there are fewer penalties, the penalty kill unit is able to stay sharp and play with more enthusiasm. Having one-to-three penalties per game would make an impact after starting the season with four-to-six.
The added dimension of discipline has clearly made an impact on the team’s bottom line in the second half, proven by its 6-2 record since the beginning of January.
With fewer penalties and cleaner play, there’s no telling where it can take them.
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