Five minutes down a skater. That’s one-twelfth of a game, a quarter of a period. It’s precious minutes when a team is forced to scratch and claw just to stay afloat, constantly fending off attacks and exerting enormous effort just to control the puck.
Major penalties have a grave effect.
And the No. 4 Michigan hockey team has eight of them.
Only two other teams in the Big Ten total more than four on the season, but the Wolverines surpassed that mark a long time ago. The penalties have already cost Michigan two overtime losses.
Despite their penalty killing unit’s consistent success, the teams’ national top-three penalty minutes per game ranking is a glaring red flag, and regularly committing major penalties has only added fuel to the fire.
“We’ve got to do a better job,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “That’s too many games in a row where we’re getting majors … and (the penalties aren’t) saving goals.”
Indeed, the Wolverines’ major penalties have often occurred in situations where the opponent isn’t in a position to score or set up an offensive attack. By nature of the penalty itself, players are often defenseless and pose little threat when the hit occurs, creating a massively disadvantageous situation with little-to-no benefits.
The opponent not only receives a five-minute power play, but the man-advantage continues even if they score while the offending skater is withheld from the contest.
In other words, the major penalty is a recipe for disaster. Something Michigan knows all too well.
Both goals that the Wolverines have allowed on majors were game-winners in overtime. Earlier this season, senior forward Garret Van Wyhe’s misconduct call in overtime gave Notre Dame plenty of room to operate with a four-on-three advantage. This past weekend, sophomore defenseman Jacob Truscott’s major body checking penalty in the third period against Minnesota spilled into overtime, where the Golden Gophers made quick use of the plentiful space on the man advantage as well.
Despite their detrimental effects, Pearson holds that most major penalty calls throughout the season have been warranted.
“I’m all about protecting the players,” Pearson said. “… Most of the calls this year I had no problem with, I thought they were all pretty good calls.”
The calls may have been necessary, but the hits weren’t.
Although they’re usually unintentional, the speed and physicality of the game is a breeding ground for dangerous hits into the boards or to the head.
While some major-penalty hits may be unavoidable, Michigan must actively seek to remove the hits from its games. Whether through altered technique or by being more cognizant of the problem in game preparations. Cutting down on game-altering hits now can be a key factor to success in elimination hockey down the road.
“Hopefully you can coach it out a little bit,” Pearson said. “… But you have to learn, you have to learn and understand how to manage a game … understanding the situation and where you are on the ice and what’s going on.”
With the rulebook on the forefront of skaters’ minds, along with improved game awareness, players can make better decisions in the heat of the moment to shorten the time the Wolverines spend killing penalties or playing with less depth due to ejections. In games such as the series opener at Minnesota, that could have been the difference.
“In that case, Truscott should have just went in and wrapped him,” Pearson said. “… The worst thing that can happen there is you get a two-minute penalty for holding. We can kill a couple of minutes, five is tough.”
Michigan’s penalty kill has been one of its strengths as of late, but extended penalties give it more opportunities to falter. Increased line changes and shorter shifts are an adjustment for the unit, even with the amount of times it’s been forced to kill majors.
Although lessening majors is no easy fix, their impact on the game is pretty straightforward.
“You guys can quote me on this,” Pearson said on Jan 10. “I have not seen a guy score a goal from the penalty box in my 40 years of coaching.”