It took just three seconds for Alex Kile to score a goal that ranks among the best of this young season.
The senior forward emerged from a routine scrum near the boards with the puck, surrounded on the ice by all five Michigan Tech players. With no teammates near, he evaded one defender before falling to his knees and sliding toward the net.
And somehow, despite losing his balance, he deked out Huskie goaltender Matt Wintjes and poked the puck into the net to give No. 11 Michigan a 2-1 lead. It was an amazing individual effort — the type that will find its way onto postseason highlight reels.
But the incredible goal from Michigan’s co-captain only illustrated the problem facing the Wolverines early on this season: an offense that lacks cohesion and has relied on a steady diet of individual performances like Kile’s to stay afloat.
Sure, Michigan has a 3-1-1 record through five games, and no one expected the Wolverines to replicate the lethal attack they had last season, when they averaged 4.76 goals per game on the strength of perhaps the best line in all of college hockey.
If Michigan hopes to finish in the top half of the Big Ten, though — let alone make it back to the postseason — it will need to develop a more consistent approach when it has the puck.
Perhaps some sporadic moments from players new to their roles are to be expected.
The standout performances from new contributors have been a pleasant surprise. A more sustainable model of success, though, would be more efficient play across the board.
The Wolverines have been outshot in all five games, and while shots don’t often tell the whole story, Michigan has struggled to move or possess the puck, tallying a Corsi For (a measure of puck possession) of just 37.5 percent thus far.
The Wolverines’ average goals per game and power-play percentage don’t tell the full story, either. Michigan averages 3.20 goals per game — good for 25th in the nation — and has converted on 24 percent of its power plays, but there are far too many instances during both even-strength play and on the power play when the attack stagnates. Shots are few and far between and Wolverines skate up and down the ice, aimlessly chasing dumped pucks.
Possession was rare in Saturday’s game against Michigan Tech, when the Huskies controlled the puck and subdued Michigan with an aggressive forecheck — a tactic that both Union and Ferris State, Michigan’s previous two opponents, also utilized to great effect.
Michigan Tech ended with a 27-shot advantage, peppering 45 shots on goal compared to just 18 from the Wolverines.
To Michigan’s credit, this isn’t an issue that’s new to them, and the players have been working on correcting it. They know that being outplayed for most of the game won’t always lead to wins or ties, and they’ve already heard from coach Red Berenson and the rest of the staff.
“I mean, let’s face it, we haven’t played the best teams in the country yet,” Kile said after Saturday’s game. “Once we play Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State, we can’t play like this, or else we’re going to lose.
“We’re going through some growing pains, and we’re trying to find our chemistry right now. But I think we’re going to get better. We got outplayed both games this weekend, and we were lucky to come out on top last night and get the shootout win today.”
Michigan freshman netminder Jack LaFontaine, whose 42-save performance Saturday helped his team escape with the tie, was more positive when it came to evaluating his team.
“We’re a very clutch team,” LaFontaine said. “When the going gets tough, we get tougher. And I think that’s good. But today, coach Berenson was talking about how we have to play a full 60 (minutes), and I personally see it as a silver lining. If we can do this in the third period, what’s going to happen in a couple months with the first and second periods?”
And it’s hard to argue with LaFontaine. It’s difficult to know just how good this team could be if it sharpens up offensively.
But what’s clearer is what the result will be if Michigan continues to play inconsistently into the bulk of its schedule — a lot fewer wins and draws.