Bill Muckalt has a saying when Luke Hughes blows by his man:
And on Saturday against Penn State, Michigan’s associate head coach probably sounded like a broken record. Hughes used his speed to skate all over the Nittany Lions on both ends of the ice. In a game that saw No. 4 Michigan rally from a two-goal deficit, in many cases, Hughes’s speed led the Wolverines toward victory.
“It’s great to see him taking steps every day,” sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo said. “The last two games here (Hughes is) really taking a step and helping the team win.”
Fast skating isn’t unusual for Hughes’s game, but he combined it with the rest of his game to devastating effect against Penn State. His positioning never let the Nittany Lions set up on his inside shoulder, blocking their path toward center ice and creating races for the puck — races that favor Hughes.
And that same speed played a crucial role in the Wolverines’ breakouts, combining his stick skills and elusiveness to dodge forecheckers. His skates never stopped moving, making micro adjustments to mirror the direction of the puck. Then when Penn State made a mistake, those same skates took off in an instant.
With that success exiting the zone, Michigan relied on Hughes to command its transition game. Handling the puck with his top hand, Hughes spun around forecheckers with ease as they tried to pry the puck off his stick. Like a miniature game of keep away, Hughes spun left and right as they scrambled for the puck — always a step ahead.
“You can rely on him to get pucks out and make a skilled play,” senior forward Nolan Moyle said. “It’s really nice having him back there.”
But Hughes had to get the puck on his stick to make those plays, and the Nittany Lions’ physical forecheck made that an uphill battle. Hughes embraced the contact, using his speed to build momentum before unleashing it along the boards.
That willingness to grind along the boards proved vital to Michigan’s success, especially as it found itself killing penalties often. Normally a defenseman can get trapped in those battles, leading to dangerous chances for the other team. Hughes’s speed made certain they would be few and far between.
But for all his defensive success, Hughes made that speed matter on offense, relying on his quickness to dodge around backcheckers. And paired once again with sophomore defenseman Jacob Truscott, Hughes saw ample opportunities to lean on it.
With Michigan within a goal, Hughes found his chance to capitalize. Coming off the rush, Hughes wiggled behind Penn State’s defense and scored before the Nittany Lions could react. Hughes skated so hard he didn’t have time to stop before crashing into the boards.
“It’s almost like having another forward on the ice back there,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said, “He really uses his skating to his advantage, to create scoring opportunities not only for himself but his teammates.”
And those scoring opportunities have come all season. Hughes’s 22 points are the most of all freshmen defensemen, and they’re not just coming off secondary assists and goals through traffic. His elusive speed has created some of the Wolverines’ best goals.
Having quick feet gives Hughes a weapon against physical teams, but it doesn’t matter if he can’t combine it with the rest of his game. Hughes proved he’s got the second step figured out.