The No. 5 Michigan hockey team has been racking up penalties and Michigan is going to need to improve its penalty kills. Anna Fuder/Daily. Buy this photo.

Two months into the season, there are plenty of statistics that cast the No. 5 Michigan hockey team in a positive light. The Wolverines lead the nation when it comes to power-play goals scored, and are ranked second in power play percentage and goals per game. But there’s another statistic where Michigan also ranks in the top five — penalty minutes.

Just last Saturday against No. 7 Harvard, the Wolverines took seven penalties. The number of penalties taken was acknowledged as one of the major areas needing improvement by Michigan coach Brandon Naurato despite the win.

“We’ve got to be smarter,” Naurato said.

And that sentiment hasn’t just been limited to last Saturday. With 226 penalty minutes through 16 games, the Wolverines have spent the third most time in the box and have allowed the fourth most penalty goals. Michigan is a team that takes penalties, and is often punished by them.

Percentage wise, at .792, the Wolverines’ penalty kill is middle of the road. Fine, but unspectacular. But the sheer volume of penalties has led to a high number of goals against. In 12 of their 16 games, their opponent scored while on the power play — for comparison their nation leading power play has scored in 11 games — and roughly a third of their total goals against have taken place while a man down. 

Defensively, penalties have come to the forefront for Michigan for better or for worse. But it’s a facet of the game where the Wolverines aren’t done improving, and a lot of those improvements come down to Michigan assistant coach Rob Rassey

In his first year in Ann Arbor, Rassey has been tasked with running the penalty kill — and he’s shown that he’s not above tinkering with it. The penalty kill is something the Wolverines drill consistently in practice, something they scout upcoming opponents extensively for and something they work to build a team identity around. And in this tinkering, they’ve shifted their strategy throughout the year.

“There’s two notions of the penalty kill,” Rassey said. “… There’s a traditional 1-1-2 in zone, and there’s a diamond. We started off the year in the 1-1-2 and now we’re kind of more in the diamond. … It was just to try and find what works for the group.”

It’s an ongoing process however, as penalty kills are much more fluid than power plays, and involve much more of the team. Ice time on the penalty kill often comes down to rest rather than a designed grouping, and it leads to more players getting involved.

“The most important part is who’s rested,” Rassey said. “Given the game, like if there were two guys out on the ice in the previous shift that might be your best guys, you might not be able to start them on the penalty kill. There’s a little bit of juggling that goes into it, … but mostly you’re trying to see who’s rested and who can go out there and play hard.”

The penalty kill isn’t set in stone for Michigan — it’s fluid. And it’s needed to be. Right now, the number of penalty kill goals scored against has hampered the Wolverines’ defense. But while their penalty kill has room for improvement, the biggest problem comes not from the Wolverines’ play at a disadvantage, but rather how often they are down a man on the ice. 

Michigan’s penalty kill will continue to shift under Rassey, and it’s likely that improvements will be made. But the Wolverines know this can’t happen in isolation, it has to be combined with discipline. 

And with the way they are racking up penalties right now, Rassey and Michigan will have time to test their work. But if it continues at the current pace, that’ll do more harm than good.