Last season, two of the five top point scorers for the Michigan hockey team were defensemen. It was part of the system — defensemen creating offense — an emphasis coach Mel Pearson made sure to call out after Michigan swept Notre Dame in mid-January.
It was the reason for their success then, and against Wisconsin, Saturday, a defensive pairing stepped up to fit that role in the 5-3 win to seal another sweep.
Jack Summers and Keaton Pehrson have had their fair share of disappointment.
Against Ohio State the prior weekend, Summers made a dive for a loose puck that jeopardized his defensive positioning. The Buckeyes scored off his turnover, sealing the game in their favor. Pehrson had a puck deflect off his skate against the Wolverines’ last matchup with the Badgers to convert a game-winning goal for Wisconsin.
But Saturday, the two generated much-needed offense in a high-scoring affair.
“Both (Pehrson) and (Summers) have to be a little more aggressive,” Pearson said. “They play a lot of hockey, our team has done extremely well and they continue to play as a good solid pair.”
Pehrson opened the scoring by tapping in a rebound from a poor goaltender catch. Wisconsin Daniel Lebedeff saw Pehrson approach and swing his body to face the defenseman. Pehrson saw his options. He had a teammate waiting on his far side, but there were two Badger skaters in front of him, blocking the passing lane.
He took the smart approach, a simple flick on net to see if the goaltender would slip-up. And Lebedeff did. He dropped the puck and was unable to cover it immediately. Upon seeing the error, Pehrson perked with excitement and drove in with his stick for a tap-in goal — the first of his career.
Pehrson has never been pegged as an offensive-minded defenseman. He’s stout defensively and plays fundamentally — to the point where Pearson noted he’s one of the only players Pearson doesn’t harp on in-game for his defense.
But Saturday, he played aggressive and determined, and it resulted in a goal.
On the other hand, Summers, his defensive-pair partner, focused on controlling the aggression. Often times, he would play the puck too forcefully and if the puck didn’t bounce his way, the opposing team would create a Grade-A breakaway. But he sat back and played a safer game to ensure his turnovers wouldn’t be costly.
And playing at the point, he received the puck near the start of the second period and swung it on target.
“Honestly, I was just trying to get something on the net,” Summers said. “I wasn’t expecting it to go in.”
The purpose of the play was to spread the defense out for an easier time to crash the crease for rebounds. The Badger skaters had packed center ice. Freshman forward Nick Granowicz recognized this and played the puck low to high to create space, passing it out to Summers camped at the point. Summers simply wanted to send it to the net so one of them could make the play. But instead, he scored.
Head held high, arms around his teammates, Summers’ celebration couldn’t have been any more contrasting to the look of disappointment he had shown just last week, wearing his head deep into his gloves after his turnover. And the first one to his side was his partner, Pehrson.
“We’ve been trying to play well together and to get a couple points really helps our confidence,” Pehrson said. “So it felt good.”
Added Pearson: “They don’t get the press or the coverage or the points the other guys do. But they’re a solid pair for us. A freshman and a sophomore, they’re doing well.”