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SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — It’s hard to take 11 penalties in a hockey game, and it’s even harder to find a rhythm in spite of them. 

But against Lake Superior State on Saturday, the No. 5 Michigan hockey team did both. In a game where it spent more than a third of the time shorthanded, the Wolverines’ penalty killers set the tone with their play.

“It’s definitely tough to get a flow and get things going, but we had a great penalty kill all weekend and I’m really confident in our penalty kill,” freshman forward T.J. Hughes said. “So it’s really nice to be able to battle (in) a game like that. But again, we built momentum from having such a good kill tonight.”

A major contributor to that penalty kill success, Hughes was one of the many skaters called on to kill 22 minutes in Michigan penalties throughout the game. Assistant coach Rob Rassey handles most of the penalty kill decisions, and he had to blend units together with the personnel he had available. Sometimes, PK skaters were in the box, and at other points they were tired from killing an earlier penalty.

Shot blockers played a common theme in those decisions, an important detail considering last week’s penalty kill issues. Against Boston University last Sunday, Michigan allowed two power play goals in part because it couldn’t prevent weak shots from reaching the net. Whereas the Terriers took 10 shots over their five power plays, the Lakers managed just 11 shots on as many power plays. By smothering those chances, the Wolverines prevented huge momentum swings that a goal would have caused.

That difference is emblematic of the lessons the penalty killers are learning early this season.

“We needed to block more shots,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “(Rassey) challenged them before the game and they did. When the puck’s on our stick and we have an opportunity to clear it, it’s a big deal to clear it. That kills off another 15 to 20 seconds versus trying to make the extra play. I don’t think we’re perfect, but we did a lot of really good things.”

Perfection is hard to expect from penalty killers who are playing first-line minutes shorthanded, but the growth of the penalty killers over one week matters. The Wolverines focused on their defensive efforts every kill, not only blocking shots and clearing pucks but also attacking the puck carrier to force errant plays. 

This wasn’t a unit limping through so many shorthanded plays; it was a unit creating its own offensive chances and building momentum that bubbled through the rest of its game.

Against skill-laden teams like Minnesota, Penn State and Harvard down the road this season, the Wolverines can’t afford to take as many penalties as they did on Saturday. Inevitably, skilled opponents will find a way to score when given almost a dozen tries. Lake Superior State wasn’t that kind of opponent, and that has to be factored into the calculus of just how well the PK unit did. So does the sheer volume of penalties they took.

“We need to be more disciplined, but I don’t need to bring down the energy on the bench by complaining about referees,” Naurato said. “If I have questions for the referees, I’ll ask them questions, but I’m not going to get a call changed because I’m yelling or screaming.”

By learning how to succeed despite a multitude of penalty kills — however undisciplined Michigan played in the process — the penalty killers built confidence and honed in on their skills.

“I’m out there a lot on the penalty kill so it’s kind of where I get a lot of my ice time and I kind of take pride in that,” freshman forward Jackson Hallum said. “And I think we took pride in that as a team too. … (Going 10-for-11) is a really good step for us on the penalty kill”

In one of the most volatile — or “goofy,” as Naurato often calls them — games so far this season, the Wolverines found a way to exert their control through most of the play. Much of that credit is on the tone its PK set.