The past two weekends — more than any others — exemplified the importance of winning faceoffs for the Michigan hockey team. The Wolverines won a couple key faceoffs, at home against No. 13 Ohio State and Wisconsin, that helped fuel wins.
In Friday’s game against the Buckeyes, a crucial faceoff victory came late in the second period. The score was tied at one a piece and sophomore forward Jimmy Lambert got ready to take a draw at the right circle of the offensive zone.
Lambert won it and quickly sent it behind him to freshman defenseman Cam York. York hustled toward the left circle and found a window between defenders to rifle the puck into the net. That goal came at a turning point for the eventual 3-2 victory.
Then Saturday against the Badgers, senior forward Nick Pastujov won another important draw early in the first period of a then-scoreless game. Pastujov won the faceoff at the right circle of the defensive zone and soon connected with freshman forward Eric Ciccolini who sent it to freshman defenseman Keaton Pehrson near center ice. Pehrson did the rest, putting Michigan on the board in a 5-3 win that secured the weekend sweep.
These plays show just how much of an advantage winning a faceoff can be. It puts the opposing players on their feet, as they have to quickly get set in a defensive position and figure out what they're going to do. A split second hesitation from the opposing defense in making that transition is all it takes to spur an offensive burst. And that was the case the past two weekends.
There’s plenty of room for the Wolverines to improve on faceoffs, as they’ve won 49.8 percent to date. That said, the results from the weekend could provide Michigan enough of an incentive to bear down on the draws.
When it comes to the drop of the puck, Pastujov is the Wolverines’ most talented player. He has taken close to 22-percent of his team’s faceoffs and is winning nearly 57 percent of the time.
Slaker, Lambert, Granowicz line finding success
With freshman forward Johnny Beecher out during last Friday’s game due to a one-game suspension, the lines were changed up a bit. For the first time, the combination of senior forward Jake Slaker, freshman forward Nick Granowicz and Lambert found its way onto the ice.
“I thought that we were good on the forecheck,” Lambert said of the line. “We were just going to the net. A lot of the times, the goals are scored just within 10 feet of the net and that’s where we scored pretty much all of them, so we clicked well, but we were skating and we were moving it and communicating and that was big out there tonight. ”
And it worked for Michigan. The line helped churn three goals in the 8-4 win.
“I’ve been playing with Jimmy on and off for the last two years, so we have good chemistry,” Slaker said. “It was our first night with (Granowicz) and we had really good practices this week. We kind of went in with a game plan and it ended up working out.”
Despite Beecher’s return to the ice on Saturday, the Wolverines stuck to what worked — letting Slaker, Lambert and Granowicz continue to stick together. And once again, the results were positive. In the 5-3 victory, the line was on ice for two of Michigan’s goals.
Lambert left the game in the third period due to an undisclosed injury after sliding into the boards. If he can make a timely recovery, though, he and his new linemates could help the Wolverines continue their offensive strides that they’ve searched so long to find.
Penalties dwindling away
While hosting Wisconsin, Michigan significantly limited its penalties. Heading into the weekend, the Wolverines were averaging 8.96 penalty minutes a night. That figure wasn’t too much of an issue due to the group’s skillful penalty kill unit.
But in the two games against the Badgers combined, Michigan served just six total penalty minutes.
“Honestly, I think it’s just the point in the season,” senior forward Jacob Hayhurst said of the drop. “It’s late. Everyone knows what the refs are gonna call and what they’re not gonna call. I think there's gonna be a little more leeway each night, just because it’s getting that much closer to playoff hockey.”
However, if such improvement is here to stay, it could pay dividends down the road.