Excitement was the first word that came to mind. But it was also just relief.
The Michigan hockey team was happy to hear the report that there would be a season this year. Players had returned to Ann Arbor as early as July to start practicing, but those workouts were casual, with no expectation of any season actually being played.
But over the last month, buzz has been building about the return of Big Ten hockey, and those rumors came to fruition last week with the announcement of a conference-only season.
“We’re all really excited, obviously,” freshman defenseman Owen Power said. “We’ve been practicing for so long, so to just kind of know a date is really exciting.”
While their first opponent is yet to be announced, the Wolverines have all eyes on the Nov. 13 weekend, when the team will finally be put to the test. As practices ramp up, the Wolverines are looking for areas to improve that can help them win the Big Ten this year and compete for a championship.
It starts on the offensive end.
Michigan was middle-of-the-pack offensively last season, ranking fourth in the Big Ten averaging 2.72 goals per game. Additionally, the Wolverines top three scorers graduated, leaving a huge void in the offense.
“We’re gonna need some huge contributions from our freshmen,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “They’ll get the opportunity to play — and play a lot — right away.”
There’s been no shortage of discussion about this year’s talented freshman class, and the team will be relying on them to make up for the loss of playmakers from last year. Michigan also needs returning players who had a quieter year on the stat sheet to step up. The challenge will be putting all these individual pieces together and finding a way to gel as a team.
“It’s hard to create chemistry — like we’re not in a lab here,” Pearson said. “It has to occur almost naturally amongst the players in the team.”
Another area the Wolverines can capitalize on is the power play, which was average at best last year. Michigan ranked fourth in power-play percentage in the Big Ten, converting on 19% of its opportunities.
“We’ve got a lot of skilled guys,” Pearson said. “We have to find a way to make sure our power play is one of the best in the country. That’ll win you a lot of games, just your power plays.”
Michigan will need that blend of new and returning players to find more success on the man-advantage this season. Sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg will look to build off last season, where he finished seventh in the Big Ten with six power play points. A new addition to the power play unit will be freshman forward Kent Johnson, who put up video-game numbers on the power play in the British Columbia Hockey League last year with 14 goals and 25 assists.
“I’m just gonna need to think really fast,” Johnson said. “Just continue to use my assets like my IQ and my skill, just at a faster pace.”
The Wolverines’ strong suit last year was their defense, which gave up just two goals per game, the best in the conference. This unit returns a lot of skill with Blankenburg as well sophomore defenseman Cam York, a first round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2019.
The coaching staff has its work cut out for them to try and build a lineup that can thrive on both ends of the ice, but with its defensive prowess, along with added offensive firepower, Michigan could be a real force to be reckoned with.
“It’s like baking a cake,” Pearson said. “You’re trying to find all the right ingredients that you can so when you’re at the end product, it’s a good cake.”
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