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When Michigan takes the ice at Yost Ice Arena this weekend, the hockey team will face a Wisconsin squad unlike any it’s seen in the recent past. 

Despite having one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten, the Badgers struggled to live up to their potential in the first half of this year and last season. But after entering the holiday break 5-5, Wisconsin has caught fire. It’s won seven of its last eight games and outscored opponents 39-11 in that span. 

A major part of that explosion has been the return of forward Dylan Holloway, who missed most of the first half of the season — including the Wolverines’ sweep of the Badgers in November — for World Juniors. Though on separate lines at even strength, he and Cole Caufield, the current favorite for the Hobey Baker Award, provide Wisconsin with a lethal one-two punch at forward. 

The Daily breaks down what makes the dynamic duo so dangerous and what Michigan can do to contain them this weekend. 

Lethal power play

Wisconsin boasts the best man advantage in the country, scoring on 31.1% of its opportunities. The statistic comes largely thanks to Caufield and Holloway, who are paired together on one of the power-play units. Together, they account for eight of the team’s 19 power-play goals. 

Put simply, teams cannot afford to commit penalties against the Badgers. So when Minnesota forward Jaxon Nelson took a five-minute boarding penalty early in the first period Saturday, the results were downright devastating. 

Wisconsin makes puck movement look easy on the power play, and Holloway and Caufield are a huge part of that. For a split second, the pass to Holloway (No. 4) at the point draws the Gophers’ defender out of the passing lane. Holloway recognizes that he doesn’t have time to hesitate and sends it across to Caufield (No. 8), whose slap shot gets deflected in by forward Roman Ahcan. 

It was a perfectly executed offensive-zone set. Thirty seconds later, they did it again. 

This is essentially the same play, just reversed and closer to the net. Caufield takes the pass, draws the defender into the shooting lane, then sends it across to Holloway for the easy goal. It’s a system that’s simple yet effective because the players are patient when they need to be but still quick to act when the opportunity comes. 

For Michigan to be successful this weekend, it will have to avoid taking costly penalties — something it’s struggled to do at points this season — especially since it’ll already have its hands full at even strength.

Speed on the fast break

Even when they’re separated, Caufield and Holloway are still threats in their own right. Caufield currently leads the NCAA with 17 goals — five clear from the next leading goal-scorer. 

Many of those goals lend themselves to Caufield’s speed. At just 5-foot-7 and 165 lbs, Caufield makes up for his lack of size with blistering speed which is especially deadly on the odd-man rush. 

Part of what makes Caufield’s game so difficult to defend is that it’s so uncomplicated. Sometimes, a player is just flat out faster than a defender, and that’s really all there is to this play. Once Caufield gets in behind the Minnesota player, there’s nothing the defender can do except hope the pass misses. To a certain extent, stopping him is about getting lucky. 

Which brings us to the next point. 

How can Michigan defend them?

When the Wolverines swept Wisconsin back in November, they didn’t concede a single goal to Caufield. Surely, that must mean they figured out how to defend him, right? 

Well, not exactly. 

“I think the biggest thing, early in the year in that series, is he had chances,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “He had some really good looks at critical times in the game. He just either put them in the goalie’s chest, or missed the net, or even shot one from a bad angle. And just a little bit of luck it doesn’t go in.”

There’s a little more to it than luck, but to a certain extent, Pearson’s right. Take this breakaway from the Nov. 19 matchup, for example. 

More often than not, that’s a goal. Caufield has time, he has space. It even looks like he might have a tiny window over junior goaltender Strauss Mann’s shoulder. Instead, he fires the shot right into Mann’s chest. From the perspective of the Michigan defense, that play is nothing but luck. To survive this weekend’s test, the Wolverines can’t continue to give up chances like that. 

“I think it’s just matching his speed,” freshman defenseman Jacob Truscott said. “Getting in his shot lanes. I think we had some blocked shots against them (in November), so just not giving them any time and space.”

Beyond that, it comes down to players trusting their teammates. Back in the second clip from the Minnesota game, if the Gophers’ defender trusts his linemate and goaltender behind him to block Caufield’s shooting lane, he never abandons the passing lane to Holloway, and the pass never gets there in the first place. Michigan will have to find a way to stay quick, patient and disciplined all at once. 

If all else fails, they’ll just have to hope for a bit of luck. 

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