TROY, N.Y. — The No. 11 Michigan hockey team has played just four games this season, but its 2015 campaign already looks much different than the last.
Last year, the Wolverines opened the season with a loss to Ferris State before falling to 2-5 over the following six games. This year, Michigan stands at 3-0-1 after leaving upstate New York with a tie and win over No. 18 Union and Rensselaer, respectively.
But despite the contrasting starts, one thing has followed the Wolverines from 2014: defensive inconsistency.
This weekend, the defensive unit showed it’s more than capable of excellence, but only on occasion. The talent is there, it’s just a matter of bringing it out on a game-to-game basis.
To start, sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski has been as good as advertised, and junior Michael Downing has complemented him well on the first line.
Junior Nolan De Jong has improved drastically after an impressive offseason that earned acknowledgment from the coaching staff.
Freshmen Nick Boka and Joseph Cecconi have quickly adapted to the collegiate level, earning significant minutes through the first four games.
To round out the regulars, sophomore Cutler Martin has been a physical presence on the ice.
But in its two-game road trip this weekend, Michigan’s defense looked like two completely different teams.
The Wolverines allowed Union to pile on five goals on 33 shots Friday, and would have suffered an upset if it weren’t for late heroics from junior center JT Compher and senior forward Justin Selman.
Michigan struggled to clear the puck out of the defensive zone and committed careless turnovers that turned into dangerous opportunities for the Dutchmen.
“Part of it is we had some bad shifts where we didn’t get the puck out of our zone and we tried to beat guys one on one,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We got a lot of little hockey plays that we’ll talk about that we can do better. There were shifts where it was like (Union) had a power play, and we couldn’t get out of the zone.
“So that’s where we were tired and we just couldn’t get off to change. It was a little bit of a test for our team, and we got away with it.”
Yet the next day, the Wolverine blueliners held RPI to just two goals on 21 shots — making their defensive performance on Friday appear to be an anomaly. They tallied 18 blocked shots, cleared the puck more effectively, ramped up the physicality and limited the same turnovers that plagued them against Union.
Friday night's foe was the stronger one. RPI is unranked, while Union is the 18th-ranked team in the nation. After the Engineers beat then-No. 1 Boston College on Oct. 11, though, there was no question that RPI had talent — regardless of ranking — that needed to be contained. That makes Michigan's defensive inconsistency even more puzzling.
“Our team defense was better, (we had) more backcheck, more shutdown and more playing the way we can play,” said freshman forward Brendan Warren. “We kept pucks out of the net, and that let us play more offense.”
Michigan didn't pay for its costly mistakes this time around, but without consistent defensive play, the Wolverines might not be so fortunate next time.