Naturally, when a team is on the power play, it focuses primarily on offense and lets its defense slightly slack as a side effect.
And when a team is on the penalty kill, it focuses on defense, clearing the puck when it can instead of organizing an offensive attack.
The gray area between the two is where Garrett Van Wyhe thrives. As the opposing team on the power play shifts out of its defensive positioning to put more pressure on the net, it’s an easy read for him when he collects the puck and has to decide what to do with it. He decides to attack the opposing net.
“When guys are on the power play, you kind of forget about playing defense a little bit and I think a lot of teams do that,” said senior forward Will Lockwood. “So guys aren't always coming back and I think Garrett takes advantage that when he's on the (penalty kill) and uses his speed.”
Against Wisconsin Sunday, Van Wyhe was put on the first penalty killing unit, a role he’s been in and out of all year. All game, he thrived in that role, putting pressure on the Badgers’ defense, even when the Michigan hockey team (5-9-2 overall, 1-6-1 Big Ten) had the man disadvantage — performing what Michigan coach Mel Pearson declared, “one of his best games.”
The reason he is such a potent penalty killer derives from his characteristics as a player. When his teammates were asked, they uniformly talked about his intelligence, defensive capabilities and his token speed.
Being intelligent on the penalty kill comes from having the mental capacity to know what to do with the puck and the awareness to make the right read quickly. And Van Wyhe excels at both.
It’s a reflex to clear the puck the moment you get it on the penalty kill. Any hesitation, and the puck could end up being forechecked or poked back into play. However, recognizing when there is an opportunity for a counter-attack is a trait that Van Wyhe has mastered.
“It's kind of tricky when you’re on the (penalty kill),” Lockwood said. “You want to get it out right away, but having like a little bit of like soft focus and an awareness to know if you have pressure right away.
“But as a (penalty killer) or your first thought is just to get out of the zone right away, but if you know, like, you have time and space and have that awareness, then you can go in and try to create a little bit offense.”
When Van Wyhe gathered the puck on the penalty kill in the second period, there was no one between him and the Wisconsin goaltender. Every Badger had pushed up to try to get the short rebound but it had bounced wide. So, instead of clearing it, Van Wyhe sprinted down the ice with redshirt junior Luke Morgan following closely behind. The two converted a shorthanded goal to extend the lead to two.
Each trip down the ice on a shorthanded attempt doesn’t have to convert to be successful. Every extra second wasted only gives more momentum to the penalty-killing team.
That’s why players will make the risky play: trying to jump on a loose puck or poke check the puck away. But it’s the balance of when and where to do it that defines a smart penalty killer.
“Just reading the situation,” said senior Griffin Luce. “When to force guys, when not to, like if they have their back turned, you're going to force the guy. And jumping on loose pucks, but when they have possession of the puck, (the key) is making sure that you're respecting that and making sure that you're in the position where they can't skip a pass and get a good lane to the net.”
Positioning is key on special teams. Defensively, players want to get in lanes, get in front of the net, protect shooting windows. But offensively, most of it goes out the window.
And that’s what Van Wyhe takes advantage of with his speed.
“So if he has the opportunity to jump, he can jump,” Luce said. “And he knows that if he chips it by a guy that he can burn them with his speed.”
“Garrett? Like one, easily,” Lockwood said when asked where Van Wyhe ranks in terms of speed on the team. “I think he’s like one of the fastest guys in college hockey. Once he gets going, there’s not much stopping him. He’s a big boy too. So, a power forward who can skate like that is a great asset to any team.”
And he’s proven his worth on the penalty kill.