If you ask Michigan coach Brandon Naurato about how he expects his hockey team to succeed, he’ll give you three keys: Team connectivity, hunting the puck and winning the net front.
Against No. 9 Boston University, Michigan failed to control the third key, giving up the net front and giving the Terriers enough high-danger chances to win the game.
“We just have to be harder at the net, and harder to get there,” Naurato said. “One of our keys is just winning the net front both offensively and defensively, boxing out, getting body position and lifting sticks.”
As much as Naurato emphasizes the net front, it was hard to find the Wolverines executing that in their on-ice product — particularly on the penalty kill.
Down one goal in the second period, BU defenseman Domenick Fensore corralled the puck at the point on the power play as the rest of the Terriers crashed the net. Quickly, junior goaltender Erik Portillo found himself behind three of BU’s players at the edge of the crease while Michigan struggled to establish its position.
Even at 6-foot-6, Portillo was rendered all but blind. Forced to make a judgment call on Fensore’s ensuing shot, Portillo swung right, but Fensore shot left. With no Wolverines in front of the net to make a play on it, the puck flew untouched into the goal to tie the game.
“When they’re buzzing around the perimeter, we just have to contain and block shots,” Naurato said. “That point shot, it was a soft shot. We have to eat that puck. It shouldn’t even get through.”
Just five minutes later, Michigan found itself in a similar situation. On the kill once again, the story was mostly the same. The Terriers controlled the dirty areas in front of the net, and the Wolverines couldn’t hold their ground.
But this time, Portillo wasn’t so much screened as he was left without help. Crashing the crease from outside, BU forward Wilmer Skoog pulled himself and Michigan sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich out of the play with a forecheck that cleared defenders out of the slot. Terrier forward Matt Brown took advantage, driving into the open seam and firing the puck past Portillo all alone for the game-winning goal.
“They did a good job of getting their hands free, getting in shot lanes tonight,” sophomore forward Dylan Duke said. “ But we can do a better job of boxing guys out so Erik can see pucks. I mean, he’s been our best player all year.”
Granted, the Wolverines often attempted to replicate BU’s success in close on offense. Whether it was the final 12 minutes in which Michigan came its closest to mounting a comeback, or Duke’s second-period, go-ahead goal off a rebound in the slot, the Wolverines had some positives in front of the crease.
Notably, the Terriers only outshot the Wolverines by one. But BU’s shots were more consistently from the dangerous areas of the offensive zone, and often followed by tips and rebound shots to put pressure on Portillo. Simply put, the Terriers did a better job of controlling that space.
As good as Portillo is — as many pucks as he can seemingly pull out of thin air — he can only do so much when Michigan can’t protect the 20 feet of space in front of him.