Midway through the Michigan hockey team’s 3-2 loss against Wisconsin on Sunday, freshman defenseman Owen Power took a pass from freshman forward Kent Johnson, deked around a stick check from a defender and beat the goaltender with a highlight-reel finish.
Besides being uncharacteristically creative from a defenseman, the goal embodied the Wolverine defense’s recent efforts to get involved in the scoring efforts. Throughout the weekend series against the Badgers, Michigan’s defensemen could be found jumping into the rush, cycling the puck in the offensive zone and working to get pucks on net, part of a longer trend that’s been encouraged by the Wolverines’ coaching staff.
“The way the game is now, not only at our level but at the highest level in the NHL, teams have three or four guys back,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “So the only way you’re gonna create outnumbered rushes or some offense is to get your defensemen to jump in the play.”
Working on a line with Power, junior defenseman Nick Blankenburg was equally active in the offensive zone last weekend, tallying four shots in each game. Though he didn’t score in the series, he remains the top goal-scorer on the Wolverines’ defense with four on the season.
Together, both Power and Blankenburg bring atypical speed that’s made them an effective pairing for generating offense from the blue line. Even before the season, Power was recognized for his unique combination of size and speed. Blankenburg, though undersized at just 5-foot-9, has been quick enough to close gaps defensively and outskate opponents on the offensive end.
For Power especially, knowing that he has a linemate that’s both quick to recover and experienced as a junior adds reassurance that he’s not taking too big of a risk when joining the rush.
“We assumed (Power) was going to get a lot of minutes … but at the same time, he’s a freshman,” assistant coach Kris Mayotte said. “So we wanted to put a guy with a lot of experience (with him). (Blankenburg) covers so much. He’s so smart, he’s so competitive, he can recover, he can do all those things, so that just really made sense.”
It’s not just the Power-Blankenburg pairing making an impact on offense, either. Sophomore defenseman Cam York is one of Michigan’s top contributors from the blue line this season. Though he only tallied one shot in the Wisconsin series, he picked up four assists, reflecting his role as a facilitator that’s netted him a defense-leading 14 points this season. And though he’s appeared in just 12 games this season, sophomore Jay Keranen has been a valuable offensive contributor from the blue line, and he even filled in at forward when Michigan lost several of its players to World Juniors in December.
Having that threat of defensemen who can jump into the rush — especially when it comes from all three defensive pairings — can help keep opponents from getting too aggressive on offense and also provide support for the team’s own offense.
“Transition to defense is one of the more difficult things in the game of hockey,” Mayotte said. “It takes a lot of communication. Things happen fast, there’s a lot of sorting out, and so the more guys that you can have join the rush offensively, hopefully, the more confusion it causes for the opposing team defensively.”
To be fair, sometimes that aggression can come back to bite you. A turnover in the neutral zone or a botched zone entry can easily lead to an odd-man rush going the other way if a team’s not careful.
But if it’s done correctly, it can also lead to some highlight-reel goals. Just ask Owen Power.
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