This season, the Michigan hockey team’s penalty kill has been crucial in shutting down high ranked opponents. But on Thursday, it was a major factor in the Wolverines’ downfall.
Before its second matchup against Penn State, Michigan had killed 19 of its 22 penalties.
“We have faith in our players,” sophomore forward Nick Granowicz said on Nov. 20. “We practice our penalty kill a lot… it’s worked out for us.”
Facing the Nittany Lions, though, all of that skill and endurance seemed to fade away. The Wolverines allowed Penn State to convert on four of its six power play opportunities.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson felt the out of character performance was a product of both exhaustion and the fact that the Wolverines were missing two of their best players on the penalty kill: junior forwards Garrett Van Wyhe and Nolan Moyle.
With the former injured and the latter out with a game misconduct penalty, Michigan had to rely on their less adept members of the roster even as it continued to give up penalty after penalty.
“We were playing with fire,” Pearson said. “And we got burned bad.”
Even within that game, there were moments when the prowess of Michigan’s penalty kill unit came through.
Two minutes into the first period when the Wolverines were already down by two, junior forward Nolan Moyle earned a five-minute major penalty for contact to the head. With Michigan already in a hole, a five-minute power play for the Nittany Lions became an opportunity for the Wolverines to dig themselves deeper.
The penalty kill unit held Penn State to five shots, allowing Michigan to escape unscathed.
“That was a critical point in the game,” Pearson said. “And even though we ended up losing the game, at that point, it gave us a chance to stay in the game.”
The issue isn’t that the Wolverines can’t kill their penalties, but that they’re racking up too many to begin with. Michigan has had a reputation throughout the years as one of the most disciplined teams in the league. But in their first eight games, the Wolverines have averaged almost 10 minutes with a player in the penalty box and one more penalty per game than last season.
It’s an issue Pearson identified right from the start. In Michigan’s first game of the season, the Wolverines gave up seven penalties but only allowed Arizona State to get to the net on one.
This team isn’t overly physical, but they have a tendency to make small mistakes that end up sending someone to the box. A perfect example came within the first game against the Sun Devils. Freshman forward Brendan Brisson touched the puck as he was released from the penalty, drawing an interference call that sent him straight back into the box. Pearson said he’d never seen the penalty in his entire coaching career.
Those types of small, technical errors — what Pearson calls “tick-tacky penalties” — are expected with a young team like the Wolverines. But it’s not only the freshmen that have continued to make the mistakes.
Other than Brisson, the biggest source of penalties have been Moyle, junior forward Jimmy Lambert and junior defenseman Nick Blankenburg.
Minnesota — who the Wolverines will face on Tuesday — is dangerous on the power play, converting on almost a third of its opportunities thus far. And with Pearson unsure whether Van Wyhe will be ready to play, it will be even more important for Michigan to limit its penalties.
“We can't be taking penalties,” Pearson said. “If we do, we're just asking for trouble.”
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