A solid thwack echoed through Lawson Ice Arena before the crowd exploded in deafening cheers. With 1:42 minutes on the clock, Western Michigan forward Tim Washe had tipped a puck past Michigan goaltender Erik Portillo. It looked like the underdog Broncos would sweep the top-ranked Wolverines in a home-and-home on Oct. 23.
But then the officials huddled to review the goal, calling it back because Washe hit the puck above the crossbar. Because of one lucky break, the Wolverines were back in a game they eventually won in overtime.
Offensive plays like that illustrate just how effective net-front traffic can be against the No. 3 Michigan hockey team. Physical teams like Western Michigan and Wisconsin exploited those difficulties to create their offense. Other teams can replicate their success if the Wolverines don’t make a change.
“That’s just how teams are gonna play against us,” fifth-year senior forward Michael Pastujov said. “They’re gonna just try to chip pucks behind us and then get to the net. And we know that, so it’s just kind of limiting that, clearing the lane as much as we can.”
Portillo’s agility between the pipes already limits those troubles, to an extent. When pucks redirect away from him, Portillo can make acrobatic saves across the net. That often buys his defense enough time to neutralize the threat. But not always.
That kind of play isn’t a long-term solution to the increasing trouble with screens. That requires deliberate work in practice.
“We’ve been working on (box-outs) a lot,” Pastujov said. “Our (defense) taking the screens, moving them outside of the front of the net trying to clear traffic.”
Screens aren’t the biggest defensive worry for the Wolverines, but proactive adjustments can prevent them from getting worse. If teams want to take space in front of Michigan’s net, its defensemen have to make them pay a premium.
So far, the Wolverines’ strategy has been clear. One defender ties up opposing screeners, while his partner grabs the puck. That solution fits well with the defense’s stick skills, but it doesn’t always make a clean stop when opponents crash the net. Michigan relies on winning the puck race every time, and the day will come when it’s too slow. Boxing out opponents in front minimizes those threats.
Success clearing the crease showed on Thursday, when senior defenseman Jack Summers and junior defenseman Jay Keranen punished the Badgers in front of the net. Wisconsin had to rely on transition offense, allowing Michigan’s speed and skill to win out.
Protecting the dirty areas of the ice takes a physical toll on both teams, but it’s one the Wolverines can afford — especially with the size on their roster. Sophomore defenseman Owen Power stands at an imposing 6-foot-5, and senior forwards Garrett Van Wyhe and Nolan Moyle throw their bodies around all game. Michigan can lean on them to clear the crease.
Opponents with less skill will try to score tough goals, and screens give them an easy chance to do that. The Wolverines can’t let that be exploited.
“Especially against Michigan State this weekend, they’re gonna be really hard to play against, like always,” Summers said. “So we just need to be a lot more physical in front of the net.”
Michigan’s skill means that opponents will try to grind them down, but it’s taking the steps to round out its game. After a scare in Kalamazoo, the Wolverines know that can be the difference between winning and losing.