After a two-game homestand to begin its season, the No. 13 Michigan hockey team travels to Big Rapids, Mich., this weekend to take on Ferris State, a squad still searching for its first victory.
Through four games, the Bulldogs have been outscored 13-8 by their opponents. Still, Michigan coach Red Berenson urged his team to not act overconfident.
“They’re going to be just like Union,” Berenson said. “They’ll be desperate for a win. They play hard. They have most of their forwards back from last year.
“They’re going to beat somebody, it’s just a matter of when, and we just don’t want it to be us.”
For Berenson’s squad to avoid an upset loss, it must repeat what it did well in last Saturday night’s 4-0 victory: win more faceoffs, score power-play goals and give its raw, young freshmen the opportunity to shine. Friday night, the Wolverines struggled in these areas, losing the faceoff battle, spending more time in the penalty kill than on the power play and — aside from a goal from freshman forward Will Lockwood — having a difficult time finding freshman contributors.
But Saturday, the young players thrived. Freshman forward James Sanchez netted two goals and freshman goaltender Hayden Lavigne earned his first win and Michigan’s first shutout since Feb. 27, 2015.
While the Wolverines’ offense is not nearly as prolific as last year’s top-ranking effort, it nonetheless leads the NCAA in shorthanded goals with two. Berenson and his players agree that these disadvantaged goals can be significant in the ultimate outcome of a game.
“A shorthanded goal is huge,” Berenson said. “If you can score one, it really takes away the confidence level of the other team’s power play.”
Added senior forward Alex Kile: “Being defensive-minded is our number one goal. If you work hard sometimes you get those bounces like you saw on Saturday night, and than you can get breakaways and we capitalized on both of them. I think the harder you work on the penalty kill the more you get rewarded.”
Kile believes that his team succeeded last Saturday due to its physical and emotional investment in the game. The Wolverines were more physical, especially on the forecheck and backcheck.
Michigan’s freshmen blue-liners will look to provide some of that same physicality against Ferris State, a team that returns its three leading scorers from last season. Michigan veterans Nolan De Jong and Nicholas Boka anchor the first line and Sam Piazza and Joseph Cecconi lead the second but the third consists of two freshmen: Griffin Luce and Luke Martin. De Jong, the senior captain, praised his new fellow defensemen on their performance through the first few weeks of the season.
“Luke Martin is a solid two-way guy,” De Jong said. “He’s not going to be super flashy either way, but he moves well. He’s a big kid.”
“Griffin Luce — he’s mean. In your face, bodying up on guys. He gets under the other guys’ skin.”
Martin and Luce and their fellow defensemen will look to stop the scoring attack of Bulldog forwards Gerald Mayhew and Chad McDonald, who combined for 66 points last season.
These physical blue-line players demonstrate the new and more defensive approach emphasized by the Wolverines’ coaching staff this year after the departure of the famous “C-C-M” line, which accounted for 51 percent of Michigan’s goals last season. The staff has chosen to let the offense and scoring opportunities create themselves.
“We don’t necessarily have on paper the firepower that we’ve had in past years,” De Jong said. “But that just means we have to emphasize bearing down even more on defense … We’re focusing on defense first and we’re going to let the offense go on from that.”
As they get set for a puck drop in a different arena for the first time all season, many of Michigan’s freshmen have already experienced the jeering that comes with playing in an opposing university’s arena. Five of the Wolverines’ newest players competed for the United States National Development team, which faces NCAA teams all season.
For the ones who have not, though, Kile explained what he and his fellow captain De Jong told their younger peers.
“We tell them to block out the crowd,” Kile said. “Block out all the distractions. We’re all business. Coach has been stressing all week that we’re out there on a business trip.”