To say the Michigan hockey team’s defense has been inconsistent this season is an understatement.
The Wolverines have given up the fourth-most goals in the Big Ten this season with 77 goals against — 24 more than No. 4 Ohio State, which has allowed the fewest goals in the conference.
Those goals, though, have often come in bunches. Take this past weekend’s series against No. 15 Penn State, for example.
Michigan allowed only one goal Thursday night and then got torched for five goals Saturday night. The Wolverines have allowed less than three goals in 12 of their 25 games this season. On the other end of the scale, they’ve given up five or more goals eight times.
But amid all that inconsistency, junior defensemen Luke Martin and Griffin Luce have backstopped an up-and-down group of blueliners.
“They’ve played well,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “I think they complement each other. They might not be the most offensive prolific guys, but this time of year, defense wins you hockey games. They did that last year, too. They played extremely well the second half, and they’ve taken up where they left off last year.”
On a team filled with two-way defensemen like sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes and freshman defenseman-turned-forward Nick Blankenburg, Martin and Luce exemplify an older brand of blueliner — one that lets offense take a backseat to focus on defense first.
This season, the pair have combined for seven total points. Luce tallied his lone point when he scored a goal against Western Michigan on Oct. 19. Martin has chipped in six assists.
Pearson tends to combine two-way defensemen with guys like Luce and Martin when creating defensive pairings, but Luce and Martin have played together more than half the games this season. And once he saw how successful the duo is when they play together, losing some of the offensive production that comes with having a two-way defenseman on the ice didn’t cross Pearson’s mind again.
“We’ve discussed that in the past,” Pearson said. “We’ve talked about our defense — we talk almost every week about, ‘Do we like the pairs, are we sure, do we need to change some things up?’ They’re playing so well that — and we like all our pairs. Why change them if you like them?”
One of the things that allows Luce and Martin to have such success together is how long they’ve known each other. In addition to their three years together with the Wolverines, they both played on the U-17 and U-18 teams for the U.S. National Team Development Program.
And both players agree that their friendship is key to their success on the ice.
“We’ve been close,” Luce said. “We’ve been together here for going on five years now, so we know each other really well. I think when you’re able to go and play out with one of your best friends (it) definitely makes a difference. We have a good chemistry going and we know each other really well, so that makes it easier.”
Martin added: “I think it’s just really easy to communicate with (Luce) on the bench. There’s no — no one’s attacking anyone or talking about a play or a bad read or something. It’s just a lot of open communication and a lot of trust. We trust each other to give each other advice and it’s working out well.”
At Michigan, the best friends have grown into mirror images of each other. They both stand 6-foot-3 and weigh in only one pound apart. Martin shoots right-handed and Luce shoots left-handed, making them ideal matches on a defensive pairing.
When you combine that with the pride they take in their roles as purely defensive defensemen, it creates a partnership that the Wolverines can count on in just about any situation — particularly on the penalty kill, a responsibility both players take seriously. In nearly every game, both blueliners can be found blocking numerous shots on the penalty kill and shutting down the threat from the opponent’s man advantage.
Against the Nittany Lions, the duo blocked a combined 17 shots in the two games — including six for Martin and five for Luce in Thursday night’s win.
“They’ve taken some pride in penalty killing,” Pearson said. “They’re blocking shots. They’re doing all those little things you need to do to win and have success.
“(Blocking shots) especially on the power play (is) really important. It’s gonna be important this weekend. Minnesota has got a really good power play. In conference, they’re operating at about 30%, which is unheard of. They scored six power-play goals last weekend against Wisconsin, so you’re gonna have to get in shooting lanes and block shots.”
And speaking of the upcoming series against the Golden Gophers, the fact that Minnesota plays on an Olympic-size ice sheet adds a layer of difficulty to Martin and Luce’s jobs this weekend. The ice is 15 feet wider than the ice at Yost Ice Arena, leaving more space for the defensemen to cover.
But both are up for the task.
“They recruit to their ice, I’ve always thought, so they have really small, fast guys who are really good at playing in the corners on that ice,” Martin said. “It’s just staying in between the dots and recovering extra hard. (Luce) and I backing each other up will be key this weekend.”
This weekend’s series against the Golden Gophers is key for the Wolverines as they try to string together some wins to get into the NCAA Tournament conversation.
And with Martin and Luce adding much-needed consistency and calm to Michigan’s defense, a strong performance from the two of them may be the answer for the Wolverines.