The Wolverines will live and die by their penalty kill. Or, rather, by their discipline. 

Penalties — and subsequent penalty killing — were both the No. 9 Michigan hockey team’s saving grace and its demise facing Michigan State on Saturday, in the Wolverines’ 3-2 loss. 

Much like Michigan’s overall success this season, its ability to stay out of the penalty box has ebbed and flowed. In the Wolverines’ season opener against Arizona State, they spent over 11 minutes playing shorthanded, but the next day, they were able to limit it to just three minutes. That inconsistency has continued to plague them and the series against the Spartans was no different. 

Michigan’s limited penalties in Friday’s matchup allowed them to dominate offensively, crushing Michigan State, 9-0. However, on Saturday, the Wolverines spent nine minutes playing shorthanded, more than double the time of the day before and the third most of any game thus far this season. 

The first penalty came just over five minutes into the first period, at which point Michigan was already down, 0-1, though it escaped unscathed with just five shots put on the board. 

The penalty kill units continued to shine in a game that was otherwise uneventful. Michigan killed all three of their penalties throughout the game, including a five-minute major which spanned between the first and second frames. 

“I thought (the penalty kill) was OK,” sophomore defenseman Cam York said. “It was sort of hard when (sophomore defenseman Keaton Pehrson) went down.”

The five-minute major — a contact-to-the-head penalty — was called on Pehrson, taking him out of the remainder of the game with just over a minute to go in the first period. Michigan coach Mel Pearson looked unhappy with the call at the time. 

“I’ll have to watch (the video),” Pearson said. “But you have to be careful. You can’t hit to the head.” 

The penalty kill unit cleared the puck from the zone twice, preventing Michigan State from setting up in Michigan’s zone until there were just seconds left on the clock. It was only able to get off one shot before the buzzer rang. When the intermission was over, it was much of the same. The Spartans managed just three more shots in the remaining three minutes of their power play. 

Overall, Pearson said he was satisfied with his team’s discipline on Saturday despite the fact that the Wolverines took a penalty for a face-off violation and a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty, their fifth of the season. This team has a tendency to make small, technical errors. 

“They’re not good penalties,” Pearson said on Nov. 16 of his team’s technical errors. “If you’re going to save a goal, that’s one thing or protect a teammate, but I don’t like the penalties we’re taking.” 

As for Saturday’s too-many-men call, Pearson again said he’d have to look at the tape. 

The third and final penalty — a face-off violation from freshman forward Matty Beniers at the end of the second period — was killed with just four shots on junior goaltender Strauss Mann. 

The prowess of Michigan’s two penalty kill units should not be overlooked. They failed to let the Spartans convert on any of their six opportunities this weekend. Without their stellar performance in the first period, the Wolverines would have dug themselves a hole early on, a hole they likely wouldn’t have been able to dig themselves out of. 

But relying on that level of perfection from a penalty kill unit isn’t feasible over the course of a whole season. The Spartans currently sit sixth out of seven in the Big Ten for their ability to convert on the power play. While Michigan was able to keep them in check this weekend, that may not be the case if they give another team the same opportunities.  

Even with the penalty kill functioning perfectly, penalties are costly. At the beginning of the season, Pearson suggested that the team could be an offensive threat shorthanded, but apart from sophomore forward Johnny Beecher taking a shot during Saturday’s last penalty kill, Pearson’s hope has yet to come to fruition. 

For the Wolverines on Saturday, the penalties cost them nine minutes in their own zone without the puck, nine minutes where they’re virtually guaranteed not to score. And, in a low-scoring game that came down to the final seconds, time is invaluable.