If you’ve watched the No. 12 Michigan hockey team this season, you’re probably familiar with some of its favorite goal celebrations. Sophomore forward Rutger McGroarty is partial to the dab, and junior forward Dylan Duke has tried out the lasso on occasion.
But goals aren’t the only thing worth celebrating. Last weekend against Minnesota, the Wolverines’ bench continually erupted in reaction to defensive sacrifices. Although less noticeable and less heralded than goals, Michigan’s blocks were a prominent force. Throughout the weekend series, the Wolverines tallied a season-high 36 total blocks — a significant increase from its previous best of 26 set at Massachusetts last month.
“Blocking shots doesn’t just stop the puck from going in the net, but it also boosts the morale on the team,” sophomore defenseman Luca Fantilli said Tuesday. “It gets the boys hyped up. Everybody stands up, starts banging on the bench. It shows that guys are willing to sacrifice their bodies for the team.”
And no one has made that sacrifice quite like Michigan’s captain Jacob Truscott. The senior defenseman has a team-leading 19 blocks on the season. Known for leading by example, Truscott continually puts his body on the line for the benefit of his team. The impact of his leadership is becoming apparent as his teammates start to follow suit.
“Him eating that many shots and blocking those just says something that he’s wearing the C for a reason,” Fantilli said. “We’re trying to follow in his footsteps and block as many shots as we can even though it’s a little scary sometimes.”
Against Minnesota, it seemed the Wolverines conquered some of those lingering fears. Truscott continued to bolster his own numbers with four blocks over the weekend. But more importantly, the rest of Michigan’s defensive core stepped up to match his efforts. Each of the five defenseman who played both nights recorded at least four total blocks.
Blocking more shots didn’t necessarily equate to success, though. Thanks to the Wolverines’ 15 blocks on Friday, the Gophers only notched 27 shots on goal compared to Michigan’s 40. But Minnesota managed to work around the Wolverines’ by pushing its way to the netfront, scoring three unanswered goals to win the game. On Saturday, Michigan had to contend with 39 Minnesota shots, but with 21 blocks, it kept itself in the game and won the eventual shootout.
As the Wolverines continued struggling to close out games, Michigan coach Brandon Naurato acknowledged the complexity of the situation but conceded that blocking more shots could help.
“There’s not one thing where like, oh my gosh, we fix this, we’re gonna be great,” Naurato said. “I think we’re doing a lot of good things with the puck, and then we’re hard in certain areas. Even things that we do well early in shifts, when we get a little bit extended it just gets that much harder. So yes, I do think blocking shots will help the third period.”
This weekend will test the Wolverines as they will need another well-rounded defensive effort to counteract Penn State’s 41.36 average shots per game — the highest mark in the Big Ten. If Michigan blocks successfully, it can bring that shots-against count down and alleviate the pressure on graduate goaltender Jake Barczewski.
Not to mention, a timely block can provide a necessary emotional boost throughout a tough stretch of play.
“You want to block a shot, like you want to hear the boys on the bench go crazy,” sophomore forward Gavin Brindley said. “It’s not something you want to move out of the way for. So the more times we get to keep the puck out of Barzo’s area the better.”
Michigan’s offense hasn’t proven it can last a full 60 minutes or produce game-winners that warrant celebration. Maybe that time will come.
But in the meantime, Michigan’s defensive squad can garner celebrations of its own by literally blocking opponents from stealing last minute wins.