It was back to basics this week in practice for the No. 11 Michigan hockey team.
The Wolverines (3-1-1) escaped last Saturday’s game against Michigan Tech with a tie despite being outplayed and outshot by the Huskies, 45-18.
As Michigan prepared for a road series against Vermont and Dartmouth this upcoming weekend, it returned to the methods that had been successful in the past, such as sharpening up its “systems of play” and its offense with and without the puck.
“We just feel we were on our heels last weekend and never really got going,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “That’s been a little bit of the story in every game. We just thought our team had to work harder in practice. We have to work harder in every drill, our effort and execution had to be better this week, and I think it is.”
Added senior defenseman Nolan De Jong: “There’s a few things we had to tidy up, whether it was our entries and our decision-making, but also some of the stuff around the net, whether it’s the offensive zone or the defensive zone. But I think we’ve had a really good week of practice so far and the coaches seem pretty happy with it, so I think we’re ready to go, and we’re excited to get to Vermont and get things going again.”
Michigan has been outshot in every game this season, but according to De Jong, improvement can be made by limiting the quality of scoring opportunities opponents generate, rather than just limiting the total number of shots. He believes the teams the Wolverines have played this year “kinda throw pucks in everywhere.”
For Michigan, it comes down to reducing the number of Grade-A chances that opponents receive, whether it’s by making sure everyone on the ice picks up their defensive assignment or boxes out hard in front of the net.
The Wolverines have also been practicing their offensive game. Michigan has struggled to sustain a consistent even-man attack recently, something its coach attributes to sloppiness with and without the puck.
“If you’re going to pass me the puck, give it to me on my stick, not at my feet or not up here where I have to catch it,” Berenson said. “Give me a signature pass, and then I’ll take it, handle it and I can pass it to him. You give me a bad pass, (and) I’ll never get it away to him. I’ll be on my ass because you gave me a bad pass.
“So little things like our passing (and) our play without the puck (have) to be better. We have to be more dialed-in in our zone — we were circling away instead of playing the man or getting our stick on the puck. We were getting outmuscled and outhustled on the puck. We can’t play like that and win games.”
With a home series against No. 4 Boston looming in just two weeks, Michigan will look to fine-tune its offensive and defensive play this weekend in two games the Wolverines are favored to win.
The Catamounts finished 15-22-3 last season and are off to a 2-1-1 start this year, while the Big Green finished 18-16-1 in the ECAC last season and have yet to play a regular season game this year.
And while Michigan is one of the youngest teams in the nation, Vermont and Dartmouth aren’t far behind — the Catamounts have nine freshmen on their roster, while the Big Green have 11.
It will be a good chance for the Wolverines to clean up their play before entering the bulk of their schedule. That opportunity isn’t lost on Berenson, who hopes to see specific improvements from his team against Vermont and Dartmouth this weekend.
“We’re looking for better zone play in the offensive zone and more puck control, and we’re looking to get out of our zone quicker,” Berenson said. “We can’t be stuck in our zone for a minute at a time and then hope that the other team doesn’t score. We’ve got to get the puck out quicker, we’ve got to do better with it in their zone and then little parts of the game, like faceoffs have to be better, blocked shots. Our power play and penalty killing are still pretty good right now, but they can be better.”