Talk to anyone on the Michigan hockey team — or really, anyone on any hockey team — and you’ll probably hear the phrase “pucks to the net,” or some variation thereof.
If you get enough pucks to the net, some of them will inevitably go in. It’s an idea that’s easy to understand and easy to repeat. But it’s not as easy a concept to put into practice.
There aren’t many better examples of this than the Wolverines’ power play unit. After last weekend’s sweep at the hands of No. 6 Ohio State, Michigan ranks 47th out of 60 teams nationally in power play percentage, scoring just 15 percent of the time with a man advantage.
It’s a perplexing statistic, at the very least. The Wolverines rank 13th in the country in scoring and take more shots on goal than any team in the Big Ten, save for Penn State’s frenetic, trigger-happy attack. Michigan has its share of individual firepower — senior forward Tony Calderone is tied for the Big Ten lead in goals and junior forward Cooper Marody ranks second in assists.
But in power play situations, where you’d expect this playmaking talent to shine through even more, the Wolverines have been inconsistent at best. Seven times against the Buckeyes they went to the power play, and seven times they failed to score. Over Michigan’s last 14 power plays, they have only scored once.
“We’ve got a bunch of good players, so we should be able to have more success than we have (on the power play),” said freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes. “Sometimes, you never know, hockey is a strange game.”
A team should have an easier time scoring when it has an additional player on the ice. There’s nothing complicated about the math behind it. Maybe that’s why Michigan coach Mel Pearson has stressed simplicity when addressing his team’s special teams struggles.
His answer? Getting pucks to the net.
“Just try to outnumber them at the net instead of trying to make these fancy, tic-tac-toe plays,” Pearson said. “Just go low to high, get three guys going to the net and one of our two guys up top gets something to the net.
“We need more shots. We’re on the perimeter too much, trying to make these fancy plays, and we slow it down and we don’t get any shots.”
Of course, if it was easy to make the easy play, the Wolverines would be ranked much higher in power play percentage.
Pearson stated that his team showed well in power play scenarios during Tuesday’s practice. But he cited the difference in atmosphere between practices and actual games, and the lack of actual chances to convert — Michigan averages 3.8 power plays per game for the season, but has seen just 2.9 per contest since Jan. 5. During that same span, the Wolverines have recorded just 1.1 shots per power play, compared to 1.8 for their opponents.
“All it takes is one goal to get a little momentum,” Pearson said Tuesday. “We haven’t had many opportunities. Even in the games this weekend, (Penn State) we didn’t have many, Minnesota we didn’t had many, so we haven’t had a lot of time to really work on it in game-like situations, which we could use more of.”
Meanwhile, the scoring prowess of Marody and Calderone has forced opponents to key in on them much more closely. Physical play and close checking have been on display from opposing teams more and more throughout the season — Pearson noted how successful the Buckeyes were in taking away Marody’s time and space in both of their meetings.
“(Marody) and Tony have really drawn a lot of attention and rightly so, because they’re two really good hockey players, so teams are really watching them close,” Pearson said. “Even on the power play, (they’re) going to take those two guys away and let one of the other three guys beat you.”
But no matter what reasons may be behind Michigan’s power play struggles, Pearson and his players all came to the same solution: Less time spent on the perimeter, more hard work in and around the crease and more shots on goal.
“We’re over-handling the puck, I think overthinking it, trying to get too cute, trying to make the great play instead of just taking what they’ve given you,” Pearson said. “… We know we have the personnel. Some of it’s mental, some of it’s physical. I think a lot of it’s mental. You get down, you get discouraged, you get frustrated. And you can’t, you just have to get ready for the next power play.”
Added Marody: “I think we need to get back to outworking the penalty kill. It’s easy on a power play to just get a little lackadaisical and not keep your feet on the gas. If we (outwork the penalty kill), we’re going to have success.”
The Wolverines know what they need to do to turn their scuffling power play unit around. The keys to doing so are simple, and they’ve known them for some time.
But as this season has shown, simplicity can be deceptively hard to attain.