Maddie Hinkley/Daily. Buy this photo.

Following an eye-opening sweep at the hands of now fourth-ranked Minnesota entering the season’s holiday break, Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson had one thing on his mind:

 “Our main focus is to get everybody back with the focus to play for Michigan and to get back to our defensive posture,” Pearson said Dec. 14.

At the time, he was right to be concerned. After ceding an average of just 1.43 goals per game in their first seven games, the Wolverines closed out the pre-holiday schedule by giving up nine, three and four goals each game. Immediately after the break, they showed progress in a game-one shutout against Michigan State — aided by the return of sophomore defenseman Cam York from World Juniors — but then blew a late lead in the second matchup for a brutal series split. 

So, leading up to last weekend’s series against Ohio State, Pearson decided to remind his players what it takes to be a good defense. 

“We handed out a paper this week that talked about defense,” Pearson said after the second game. “I’ve had it for over 40 years. It just talks a little bit about defense versus offense — how offense is play and creativity, but defense doesn’t need any of that. It’s just dull and boring, and attention to detail, and having the willingness to want to do and play that way.”

In response, Michigan put up two of its best defensive showings of the year, ceding just 21 shots in the first game and posting a shutout in the second. Players stuck to their assignments, and in areas where they’d slipped against the Gophers and Spartans, they stood tall and swept the Buckeyes. 

For freshman defenseman Owen Power, that meant jumping into the shooting lanes. After blocking just four total shots in the Minnesota and Michigan State series, Power picked up seven blocks in the two games against Ohio State alone. 

York’s return has also remained a major defensive boost since the end of the holiday break. He brought with him the same defensive consistency and offensive spark that’s anchored the Wolverines’ back line for a year and a half now, remaining a key aspect of the team’s identity.

“It’s nice having Cam York back,” Pearson said. “I think that really adds a lot. He plays big minutes, moves the puck well, he’s such a smart player.”

York’s return has also allowed Michigan’s top two defensive pairings — York with sophomore Keaton Pehrson on the first line, and Power with junior Nick Blankenburg on the second — to reunite after some shuffling against the Gophers. And as Power continues to evolve into one of the conference’s best blueliners, he and Blankenburg looked as comfortable together against the Buckeyes as they’ve been all season. 

“I think we’ve just been moving the puck well,” Power said. “And then picking our spots of when to jump up and play and be more active in the O-zone, and then obviously just being more comfortable with each other.”

The Wolverines have had a lot of humbling experiences lately. Right before the break, the Big Ten’s top team brought them crashing down to Earth with a resounding sweep. After the break, the Big Ten’s bottom team pushed them down even further with an unlikely comeback. 

Still, the Michigan defense can be one of the conference’s most talented units. The series against Ohio State was a reminder of what the Wolverines can do when their defense plays at its best. Perhaps all it needed to do was stay focused and get back to basics. 

That 40-year-old paper from Mel Pearson seems to have done its job.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.