Jack Becker didn’t even need to look to find the open man.
After Michael Pastujov’s shot missed just wide of an open net, his brother — senior forward Nick Pastujov — sent a pass to Becker, who was waiting on the edge of the left faceoff circle. Without a glance, Becker knew he had Jimmy Lambert wide open across the ice.
The no-look pass hit Lambert’s stick right on the tape and a split second later, the puck was in the net behind Windsor goaltender Jonathan Reinhart. With the score, Michigan had its second power-play goal in three opportunities on Sunday.
“I thought (Lambert’s unit) was spectacular,” said senior forward Will Lockwood. “They looked great. My unit needs work on a few things, we were a little sloppy … Cheers to them, and we’re going to have to work on our unit a little bit.”
The power play system is new for the Wolverines this year, but their performance Sunday wouldn’t show it. Three goals on six opportunities is an impressive showing, though it requires the acknowledgement that it came in an exhibition matchup against a team that doesn’t compete in any division of the NCAA.
When Michigan coach Mel Pearson hired assistant Kris Mayotte to run the penalty kill this offseason, the move required associate head coach Bill Muckalt to run the power play. Muckalt decided to switch to a modern four-forwards-one-defenseman system, rather than the traditional three forwards and two blueliners.
Through one game, the new system is paying off — and Muckalt, off recruiting in British Columbia, wasn’t even in the building to make sure things ran smoothly.
“I thought we didn’t score on some of our best chances on the power play, but it looked good,” Pearson said.
Last season, the Wolverines finished 44th in the nation with a power play percentage of 15.6-percent. One game, especially an exhibition matchup, is an inadequate sample size to make claims about how things could go this year, but it was clear that both units looked more cohesive and creative than they did last year.
“We added so much skill to the team,” Lockwood said. “We’re gonna have two really good units this year and two units that are going to be threats. I don’t know if it’s going to be a specific first and second unit. I think you can throw both units out there.”
While having an extra forward opens up offensive opportunities, there are risks associated with one fewer defenseman on the unit, and Michigan saw that firsthand on Sunday.
As forward Alex Friesen’s penalty expired, forward Brady Pataki noticed him coming out of the penalty box and sent the puck up the ice to his teammate. Friesen found himself with a one-on-none opportunity in front of sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann, but Mann grabbed the puck out of the air and snuffed out the breakaway chance.
“It’s a little scary,” Pearson said. “They got a little breakaway on it tonight because your forwards start on the power play (and) they’re not thinking defense. That happened to us the end of the year last year. Guys came out of the penalty box (and scored), so we’re going to have to address that for sure, but you’re going to have that creativity (with four forwards).”
A year after their power play units scored just six goals on 54 opportunities in the second half of the season, the Wolverines’ power play looks refreshed. The new system seems to have injected some new life and creativity, and the balance between offense and defense with an additional forward is something that will come in time. As Pearson often said last year, special teams — the power play and penalty killing — is key to winning games.
Last season, Michigan struggled in both aspects of special teams. This year, at least the power play looks to be on good footing heading into official games.