The No. 2 Michigan hockey team’s defense is led by two stars: senior captain Nick Blankenburg and sophomore Owen Power, the top pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. But during Thursday’s 3-0 win over Wisconsin, an unsung hero stole the show.
Playing in only his third game of the season — oftentimes finding himself on the bench as a healthy scratch — junior defenseman Jay Keranen took full advantage of newfound playing time. His active stick, physical play and hustle kept the Wisconsin offense at bay both before and after the Wolverines’ offense got in full swing.
“I thought he had a really good night,” Power said. “He’s one of those guys that brings a lot of energy to the team … (and he’s) playing really, really solid defensively.”
Midway through the first period, Keranen gave the Badgers a formal introduction.
After Keranen executed a textbook backcheck to disrupt a Wisconsin attack, the Badgers returned to their offensive zone with speed. Keranen responded, crushing the Wisconsin puck handler into the boards left of sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo and returning possession to Michigan.
Keranen’s aggression on defense allowed the Wolverines to continue building momentum towards their first goal. With less than a minute left in the first period and the game still tied, Michigan produced its best scoring chance of the evening to that point. A pad save by Jared Moe off a left-side shot found him out of position when the rebound snaked directly to graduate forward Luke Morgan on the right side.
Moe made a sprawling save across the crease, and Wisconsin took the puck into the Wolverines’ zone in stride. The Badgers appeared threatening, until Keranen landed yet another pummeling hit in the corner to put Michigan back on the offensive. Although the Wolverines were unable to score to end the period, Keranen helped keep Wisconsin off the scoreboard and maintain the scoreless tie.
Early in the second period, Keranen turned defense into offense on the penalty kill. After he closed shooting lanes with his active stick work, sophomore forward Matty Beniers intercepted a Wisconsin pass. Keranen streaked to Beniers’ left with speed, handled the pass and fired a threatening breakaway shot that banged off the pipe and kept the Badgers’ power play humble.
With 14 minutes left in the second period and Michigan holding a 1-0 lead, Wisconsin forward Liam Malmquist swooped the puck and went on the breakaway.
In a display of both speed and heart, Keranen chased him down, getting his stick on the puck to weaken the shot. Portillo still had to leave his skates to make the save, though. As he lay on the ice, unable to defend the goal, Keranen out-skated Malmquist to the puck and played a nifty game of keep-away until his teammates arrived to assist.
Later in the period, Keranen made his biggest mistake of the night. He misplayed a pass at the blue line, leading to a turnover and breakaway for forward Jack Gorniak.
But Keranen’s hustle made up for the miscue.
He once again turned on the jets, using his stick to deny Gorniak an ideal look. Defenders commonly commit interference and give up penalty shots when chasing after breakaways. In both instances, however, Keranen not only chased down the puck aggressively, but also tactfully. He strategically angled his stick to create clean disruptions and avoid costly penalties.
Keranen’s impact continued into the third period. As Wisconsin went on the power play, he gave them fits. Not only did he stay active in shooting lanes, but he also got his stick on a strong shot, sending the puck harmlessly into the net above.
“Jay brings it every night,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “He gives you his best effort. He competes, skates, (and) doesn’t get rattled. That’s why he’s so valuable and will continue to get in games.”
In a defense loaded with talent, Keranen is often overlooked, but in Michigan’s shutout of Wisconsin to open Big Ten play, he made his presence felt.