So far this season, the Michigan hockey team has consistently left coach Red Berenson with something to be desired: a stout defensive performance.
But this past weekend, the Wolverines finally gave their coach what he wanted.
In six periods and an overtime frame against Dartmouth, Michigan allowed only one goal — compared to the average of 3.1 goals per game it was allowing prior to the homestand against the Big Green.
Even more impressive is that Dartmouth’s only goal came just as junior defenseman Zach Werenski left the penalty box, so Michigan conceded while playing a man down.
Granted, the Big Green aren’t even in the top 20 for scoring offense, but the performance is still promising for a team that was beginning to look eerily similar to the 2014 Wolverines, who fell short of the NCAA Tournament because of their own defensive woes.
“(Dartmouth is) not up there statistically like a lot of other schools are,” Berenson said. “So we have to take that with a grain of salt. But any time you give up one goal-against on the weekend, that’s pretty good.”
Added Werenski: “Our goaltending played extremely well. For (Nagelvoort) to come in after (Racine) got hurt on Saturday and do the job he did — it was definitely a confidence-booster for probably him and our whole team.”
Now that Michigan is back in the swing of things — and given that the freshmen defensemen have adjusted well to the college level — Berenson is trying different defensive pairs in practice.
Depending on how the experiments go this week, the Wolverines may give Wisconsin a different look in the defensive zone Friday.
BRING ON THE BIG TEN: The Michigan hockey team has had 11 games to prepare for its Big Ten season opener, and the enthusiasm for the conference schedule has grown with each of those contests.
“The Big Ten is fun,” Werenski said. “It’s nice to start conference play knowing that every game means something. I know they all mean something for Pairwise and your ranking and stuff like that, but going into your conference and playing Wisconsin for the first weekend, it’s huge to get off to a good start.”
The state of the Big Ten is unimpressive as conference play begins, as just Michigan and Penn State boast winning records, but Berenson is confident that the Wolverines’ opponents’ records are far from representative of their ability.
“Minnesota is better than their record,” Berenson said. “Wisconsin is better than their record. Michigan State is a pretty doggone good team. They’re much better than they were last year, that’s the word anyway. And Ohio State usually starts slow. That’s why you have the games. Now everyone’s getting pumped up for the Big Ten, and this will start sorting everybody out.”
PRAISING PIAZZA: Sophomore defenseman Cutler Martin was scratched from the lineup Saturday night, but not for health-related reasons.
Instead, sophomore defenseman Sam Piazza has been impressing the coaching staff in practice as of late. With the Big Ten season on the horizon, Berenson felt the need to give the sophomore blueliner more experience so that he felt comfortable integrating him into the seven-man rotation.
“Sam is one of our healthy defensemen right now — we’ve got seven healthy defensemen,” Berenson said. “He probably hasn’t had a chance to play as much as some other guys, but he’s right there. I thought he held his own on Saturday, and whether we play him or not this weekend, we know he’s ready to play and help our team.”
Piazza was efficient when given his opportunity Saturday, effectively moving the puck out of the defensive zone — something that earned the praise of fellow defenseman Zach Werenski.
“The first thing I noticed on Saturday night was (that) his passes to the forwards were on the tape,” Werenski said. “That’s what you want out of a defenseman, is just to get the puck up to the forwards and get it in their hands. It’s always a bonus when you can make the little seam plays like (Piazza) makes.”
INJURY UPDATE: Fourteen minutes into the first period Saturday, senior goaltender Steve Racine suffered a lower-body injury after saving Darmouth forward Tim O’Brien’s shot. The veteran netminder fell to the ice before being helped to the locker room.
Racine didn’t return against the Big Green and didn’t participate in practice Monday.
Berenson labeled the recovery process as a week-to-week evaluation and said he had no expectation that Racine would take the ice at all this week.
The Wolverines are facing other injuries on the defensive end as well.
Though Berenson originally expected junior defenseman Kevin Lohan to be available for the matchup with Boston University, the blueliner couldn’t suit up against the Terriers due to a lower-body injury.
“When (Lohan) started skating and practicing, there was a setback,” Berenson said. “So now we’ve taken him off the ice, and we’re going to let it hopefully heal and get better.”
Lohan is expected to start light skating on Thursday or Friday of this week, but it’s unlikely that he will make a full return before Christmas.