Go back one year, and much is the same now for the No. 11 Michigan hockey team — especially on defense.
Last season, the Wolverines took time to adjust to Michigan coach Mel Pearson’s system, only reaching peak defensive form in a post-New Year’s day stretch that saw them allow 2.72 goals per game. Before that though, the Wolverines were plagued by lackadaisical play off the puck and turnovers deep in either zone.
Through one game against Vermont and two exhibition games, this season’s initial impressions are much of the same — Michigan has given up at least four goals in each game, and has allowed scores on five of 10 opposing power plays. Be it the blue line playing too far up on offense or committing too many turnovers, opposing teams have been able to break away and score, seemingly just like last year.
“Our play without the puck (needs to improve),” Pearson said. “Not as much in zone but our transition game when we’re getting back into our zone, who we're picking up our goaltending, we have to get better there.
“… Definitely a defensive game. I think if you look at all the aspects you can’t expect to give up as many goals as we have in these games and expect to win. So one area that we’re going to spend a lot of time this week is working on our play without the puck.”
Unlike last year, though, Michigan can’t rely on unfamiliarity as much of an excuse. Whether it’s the blue-line pairings of sophomore Quinn Hughes and senior Joseph Cecconi, or senior Nick Boka and junior Griffin Luce, the Wolverines return not only experience but also resilience from last year’s defense.
That’s not to say, though, that the start of this season is all the back line’s fault. In college hockey, the unexpected is the expected, and that’s especially true when many teams haven’t formally stepped on the ice for a game in six or seven months. Having to integrate a completely new front line rotation is no simple task, either. Neither is manufacturing teamwide chemistry.
“We’re still fluid,” Pearson said. “We’re still trying to work on it, get some chemistry together. You can see it when (sophomore forward Jack) Becker and the two Pastujovs are together, they’re really good. (I think sophomore forward Josh) Norris and (junior forward Will) Lockwood have some chemistry. Other than that, we’ve gotta find some more chemistry, and you can’t force that, that’s the hard part. It’s gotta occur … we have too many good players.”
Just like last year, Michigan has a chance to turn around its defense, but can learn from last year and fix things up a little earlier. Almost all the pieces are there. Junior goalkeeper Hayden Lavigne hasn’t started strongly, but he too has a second chance at redemption. Even freshman goalkeeper Strauss Mann showed flashes by allowing just one goal in his first 40 minutes of action on the ice.
“You know, Hayden’s a good goaltender, he’s just fighting it a little bit right now, Pearson said.“Maybe the exhibition game he didn’t prepare for or whatnot, but he’ll bounce back. And you have to. We got off to a slow start last year, and it (ended) really good.”
Time will tell if the Wolverines can duplicate the same successful run that they conjured up last year. While the first three games on Yost's ice have been a mixed bag, to say the least, Michigan may well find a groove. Whether it’s enough or not is all in the hands of the men on the defensive end of the ice.