It hasn’t always been pretty on defense for the No. 14 Michigan hockey team this season.
Some games, the defense excels and the offense grinds — like in the Nov. 9 game against No. 7 Notre Dame, which the Wolverines won 2-1. Two goals scored doesn’t sound like a stellar offensive performance, but the Fighting Irish rank seventh in the nation in defense, allowing an average of 1.92 goals per game.
In other games, the offense breaks through and the defense has difficulty. But lately, the offense has been more and more consistent, while the defense is still struggling to settle in and perform at the same level every night. This past weekend’s series against No. 5 Penn State exemplified that.
The offense was undeniably important — it isn’t just about the defensive struggles. Without its talented forwards, Michigan may not have been able to come back from a two-goal, third-period deficit — twice — over the course of the weekend. While Saturday, the game ended with a loss in overtime, the resilience and confidence of the offense was key for the comeback.
“I think we’ve gotta have that confidence,” said junior forward Will Lockwood. “I think it’s good because we know we can play with anyone now, which is important, but I think we have to be more consistent. I think that’s gotta be the message throughout the locker room is consistency.”
After two comebacks late in games, the Wolverines have enough confidence. They have plenty of players who can score and the offense is finding a rhythm.
Now, it’s time for the defense to find the same consistency and put all the pieces together for a complete team.
“We just have to get everybody on the same page and we have to make a commitment to team defense,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “Once we do that, we’ll be even better. Otherwise, we’re just gonna be inconsistent like we are.”
And it’s up to Lockwood and his fellow letter-wearers — senior captain defenseman Joseph Cecconi along with alternate captains junior forward Jake Slaker, junior defenseman Luke Martin and senior defenseman Nick Boka — to help the team find a rhythm in all phases of the game.
“I think it starts by leadership,” Lockwood said. “(Pearson’s) been preaching it a little bit now, but I think now it’s gotta be up to myself and some other guys in the locker room to really get the guys going. That’s gotta be a platform for our game is (playing) with that energy all the time, not just a portion of the game.”
With a team that’s the fifth-youngest in college hockey, leadership from the top down is important. It’s hard — especially at first — for the freshmen to feel comfortable stepping up and taking on an unofficial leadership role.
“I think we have some vocal leaders on the team,” Lockwood said. “I think those are the guys that are wearing the letters, but I don’t think guys should be shy who aren’t wearing letters to be vocal in the locker room. I think we have guys that lead by example and who aren’t specific leaders as far as letters go on the team, which is a great thing to see.”
Developing leaders is a slow process, but it seems that Lockwood and his fellow upperclassmen are ready and willing to encourage everyone on the team — not just those officially designated to be captains — to step up and take ownership.
As part of his responsibility as an alternate captain, Lockwood took advantage of a moment to lead by example against the Nittany Lions. Late in Friday’s game, the Wolverines had a 5-4 lead, but Penn State had just pulled their goaltender to get an extra attacker and try to tie the game. But Lockwood managed to steal the puck from an opposing forward, and suddenly he was mere feet from a wide-open net.
Rather than shoot the puck himself, he looked over his shoulder to find Slaker skating down the ice just behind him. He slipped the puck to his teammate, who tapped it home for his second goal of the night. It was selfless, pure and simple.
“I’ve played with Jake a lot, and I think he would do the same thing for me,” Lockwood said. “I think it was more of just setting an example of how we need to play as a team. We’ve gotta be thinking of the guy next to us and not just ourselves.”
Leadership won’t always come in obvious moments like that. Sometimes it’s the little things, like keeping your teammates fired up in the locker room when you’re facing a deficit or skating just a little bit harder toward a loose puck.
But maybe, just maybe, as the leadership from the captains trickles down through the rest of the team, Michigan will finally find the consistency on defense it’s been looking for all season.