Griffin Luce was definitive on what he wanted to see out of his team this weekend.
“We’re just not gonna let them have the puck,” the sophomore defenseman said. “We’re gonna play with the puck in their end and when they do get the puck we’re gonna shut them down early.”
Luce is reiterating a sentiment that has been ever-present for the Michigan hockey team (2-4-2 Big Ten, 6-6-2 overall) – give a hard-nosed and swift defensive performance that translates into a powerful offensive front.
However, this hasn’t happened recently, as evidenced by their forfeiture of eight goals against Ohio State last weekend. The Wolverines have one more chance this calendar year to reverse a recent skid, and it will come this weekend against Michigan State (1-6-1, 7-8-1).
In terms of Big Ten rankings, the Spartans are the one team slated below Michigan, and the pair – alongside Ohio State – look up at a conference headlined by No. 4 Notre Dame.
“As much as we’ve played maybe inconsistently, we’re right in the thick of things,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “This is a huge weekend. If we can string together a couple real good games and we’re right in the thick of things in the Big Ten.”
The Wolverines and Spartans face off at Yost Ice Arena on Thursday, but travel to East Lansing on Friday for their first home-and-home set of the year.
Coming off an exhibition win earlier this week against the U-18 U.S. National Development Team Program, Michigan was able to notch a week of much-needed practice.
“I definitely think we’ve used it to our advantage,” Pearson said. “I think having that game was very important. … We got to work on our power play, our special teams and some other things.”
The special teams practice will likely come into play heavily against the Spartans. Compared to Michigan State’s .203 conversion percentage on power-plays, the Wolverines’ is just .164.
Forwards Mitchell Lewandowski, Taro Hirose and Patrick Khodorenko have tallied 49 points thus far, making the Spartans’ leading line enemy number one for the Michigan defense.
“I think we’ll play strength against strength,” Pearson said. “We think we have three lines that can play against them and do a good job. … Obviously we’ll make our players aware of them, but I think the best way to shut a line down like that is to force them to play without the puck.”
The Wolverines are no stranger to this type of first-line brilliance, though. Senior forwards Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone, alongside junior forward Cooper Marody, have been present in every discussion of the Michigan offense.
The trio has combined for 47 points so far this season, but following a standstill performance at Ohio State in which the Wolverines were swept at home, Pearson decided it would be time for a change.
While the Wolverines’ leading line is expected to remain intact, by switching Calderone and sophomore forward Will Lockwood for the matchup against the USNDTP, Pearson proved that those efforts for versatility were feasible.
“We experimented with a couple things this weekend,” Dancs said. “I think mine’s staying together so I think it’ll be good for us, we’ve had some success but the last few games we haven’t been as good as we were in previous weekends.”
While Michigan may have a slightly better conference record, the Wolverines must avoid defensive lapses to keep the Spartans’ offense at bay.