Through the first month of the season, the No. 1 Michigan hockey team has come out of the gate at a blistering pace.
Michigan coach Brandon Naurato is off to the best start through the first eight games behind the bench of any coach in Wolverines’ history, boasting a 7-1 record. Meanwhile, Michigan leads the nation in scoring offense at 5.25 goals per game, helping elevate the Wolverines to the top spot in the country.
But Michigan’s schedule is about to get much more difficult, with road trips to No. 13 Penn State and No. 12 Notre Dame lined up before a clash with No. 3 Minnesota in Ann Arbor.
As the Wolverines dive into the thick of their schedule, The Daily examines a few of the storylines that have helped create their early success and what it will take to extend that success into the future.
Naurato reels in his first big fish
With an “interim” tag stuck next to his head coaching title, Naurato has to contend with an extra challenge on the recruiting trail. Until that tag is removed — if it ever is — he can’t promise potential commits that he’ll be there by the time they get to Michigan.
On Tuesday, though, Naurato proved that he can overcome that challenge in a major way. Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nick Moldenhauer announced his verbal commitment to the Wolverines, instantly establishing himself as a crown jewel of next year’s recruiting class. Moldenhauer is in the midst of a stellar season with the USHL’s Chicago Steel, currently leading the league with 17 points in just 11 games.
With Moldenhauer’s commitment, Naurato also reestablished the burgeoning pipeline from Chicago to Ann Arbor. During his time with the Steel, Moldenhauer played with three current Wolverines — freshman forward Adam Fantilli, freshman defenseman Luca Fantilli and sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich. Beyond the current players, last year’s in Owen Power and Brendan Brisson also spent their USHL days in Chicago.
“We’re still really good friends,” Samoskevich said on Tuesday. “… It was nice seeing him (on his visit to Michigan), and obviously he’s a really good player. He’s so versatile and good on both sides of the puck. He’s a good one to have.”
By landing Moldenhauer, Naurato returned to a pool of talent the Wolverines have consistently pulled from, while grabbing a major piece of the program he is trying to build. If Michigan continues to succeed, Naurato will become increasingly likely to stick around for more than a year, and Moldenhauer might just be the first domino to fall in an impressive recruiting class.
Power play finds success right away
In the middle of Samoskevich’s press availability on Tuesday, Naurato waltzed into the room with a big grin on his face before making an announcement.
“31.8%,” Naurato proclaimed. “Stay at 31.8, boys, life’s good.”
Of course, Naurato was referring to the Wolverines’ power play percentage thus far. Following a 5-for-5 effort last Saturday against Western Michigan, Michigan’s success rate has climbed up to 31.8%, good for third highest in the nation.
Given that the Wolverines have also had the nation’s third-highest power play attempts with 44, that high success rate bodes extremely well. Opposing teams try to play chippy to throw off Michigan’s skilled players, often drawing plenty of penalties along the way. When the Wolverines make their opponents pay at this rate, that game becomes much more risky, making it ever harder to counter Michigan’s skill.
And whether it’s the first power play line — featuring Adam Fantilli and his tied-third-most four power play goals — or the second, where freshman forward Rutger McGroarty just scored a hat trick at a man advantage, the Wolverines’ power play is constantly a threat to hand opponents their comeuppance.
Wolverines to face a big test this weekend
As mentioned earlier, Michigan leads the country in scoring offense with 5.25 goals a game.
But the second-highest scoring offense in the nation? That belongs to the Wolverines’ opponent this weekend: the undefeated Nittany Lions, who score an average of 4.62 goals per game.
“They throw everything towards the net,” senior defenseman Keaton Pehrson said Tuesday. “We’ve gotta be really good getting hands in front of the net, protecting the front before running out to the back. … They’re gonna score, so just little details will be huge this weekend defensively.”
Pehrson’s comments are backed up by Penn State’s high shot numbers, averaging 42.8 shots a game. The Nittany Lions will constantly fire pucks at the net, running their offense with a focus on pure volume.
Penn State is yet to face a goaltender as talented as junior Erik Portillo, though, or a team as talented as Michigan. It’s difficult to sweep any opponent in college hockey, let alone four in a row as the Nittany Lions have, but they have not yet played a ranked opponent. Whether or not their high-shot offense will work as effectively against higher quality competition remains largely unknown.
Naurato also compared Penn State to Western Michigan, noting that both teams rely heavily on the rush, working in transition to create offense. While the Wolverines did find success against the Broncos this past weekend, both games were incredibly close and could have swung the other way.
As the top-ranked team heading into a hostile environment, Michigan has a bigger target on its back than ever.
Whether the Wolverines can stave off the teams gunning for them will be tested immediately as Big Ten play gets underway.