With six minutes to play in the second period Sunday, the Michigan hockey team couldn’t get a bounce. Leading Toronto just 1-0 despite tallying 21 first-period shots, tension was taking root on the home bench.
As play restarted, sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski lifted the puck off fellow sophomore Sam Piazza’s stick in the offensive zone and wheeled deeper toward the end boards. Toronto’s netminder slid across to challenge the shot, only to watch the puck rocket over his left shoulder into the near corner of the net, giving Michigan a 2-0 lead.
“We knew it would take care of itself eventually,” Werenski said. “We had a lot of scoring chances in the first, and once we got a couple, we knew the floodgates would open.”
Only a minute later, junior defenseman Nolan De Jong lined up a slap shot and blasted it through traffic in front of the net. That made it 3-0, and the Wolverines never looked back.
Still, the goals were just gravy on top of a tremendous performance in the defensive zone. By the end of the first period, there was already a resounding answer to the year’s biggest question. The Wolverines looked committed to playing hard-nosed defense, and that — their biggest offseason project — kept them on top en route an 8-1 clobbering of Toronto.
All seven defensemen who dressed for Sunday’s season-opening exhibition looked sharp, clearing the zone quickly, passing aggressively up the ice and avoiding turnovers.
Werenski, a smooth skater and deft puck handler, put on a particularly strong showing. The 18-year-old flashed skill on both ends of the ice Sunday, burying two goals and calmly clearing Toronto scoring chances in his own end.
Michigan came out firing to start the game, finding the net in just 10 seconds and continuing to pour on quality shots. The strong play started from the back, where the defense looked quick, beating Toronto to the corners and moving the puck up the ice aggressively.
“I think three, or four really, of our goals were the result of our point men getting the puck through,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson.
Notable performances elsewhere on the defense included those from physical point men De Jong and freshman Nicholas Boka.
De Jong appears to have made significant strides in the offseason, and Berenson has taken note. Berenson said in the week leading up to the game that De Jong may be the most improved player from last season after showing up to camp in phenomenal shape. He looked shaky with the puck at times, but he showed good vision and a booming slap shot with his second-period goal.
The new addition to the team, Boka, turned in an even stronger game. He impressed coaches with his combination of speed and size when he arrived on campus. Boka, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, blew by defenders to gain the offensive zone more than once Sunday.
To be sure, the Wolverines still have work to do. Too many passes sailed wide in the defensive zone, and more than a few pucks were dropped at inopportune moments, but the improvements over last season were undeniable.
The team took the ice for a skate-and-greet with fans after the game, clowning around with each other and enjoying the moment. For October hockey, it’s right where the Wolverines want to be.