Nick Blankenburg looked across the ice, surveying his options as he decided which play to make for Michigan’s top power-play unit.
The sophomore defenseman had senior forward Will Lockwood in the slot, senior forward Jake Slaker on the right half-wall, fifth-year forward Jacob Hayhurst on the left half-wall and freshman forward Johnny Beecher at the net front. He could pass to any one of those options or choose to shoot the puck himself — less of an attempt to score and more of an attempt to make the New Hampshire penalty killers respect him as an option to shoot.
Blankenburg looked first at Lockwood sliding into the slot, who brought a defender with him as he read Blankenburg’s eyes. In a split second, Blankenburg turned slightly to his left and fired a tape-to-tape pass across to Hayhurst.
Hayhurst, all alone on the left wall, quickly moved the puck inside for Lockwood, who sent it ahead for Beecher in front of Wildcat goaltender Mike Robinson.
Beecher tipped the puck out of the air to himself and poked it home for the Wolverines’ first power-play goal in 15 attempts across five games.
“Power play hasn’t been very good this year at times, but tonight I thought it was excellent,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after Friday’s game. “That was a huge power play goal by Johnny to get us going.”
On Monday at Yost Ice Arena, Pearson expanded on the work that went into Michigan’s power play finding twine for the first time in three weeks. The Wolverines spent more time on the man-advantage units in practice than usual and made some key position changes throughout the week, ultimately culminating in a 2-of-6 performance on the weekend.
Freshman defenseman Cam York, who had been running the top power-play unit from the blueline, was moved to run things from the left half-wall and Blankenburg took York’s spot up top — but not his role.
York’s role as the quarterback of the power play remains intact, it’s just from a different position on the ice. And the change came after Pearson took a look at film from last year’s team and how he used defenseman Quinn Hughes — now a rookie with the Vancouver Canucks, who leads all NHL rookies and ranks fifth overall in points on the power play.
“That was just to switch because we looked at some tape from last year and where Quinn played,” Pearson said. “We had Quinn Hughes in some different plays — with some different plays and in some different positions. We decided to try to put our people in situations they would be comfortable in.”
York had been running things from the blueline all year, but he never looked fully comfortable in the role. And though he missed his shift when his typical unit scored in Friday’s game, on Michigan’s other two opportunities in the game, he was visibly more at ease working out of the half-wall — and the Wolverines’ one power-play goal Friday night came after Hayhurst made a play from York’s spot on the wall.
“He put Yorkie on the left side, so (my role is to) get the puck to Yorkie and then he’ll have speed going down the wall so he can either shoot it (or) give it back up to me,” Blankenburg said. “…Yorkie’s got a lot of options he can do. He can, like I said, go back to me, look for Will in the middle, go cross-ice to Slakes, go down kinda below the net, Beech pops out.
“We had a play where that worked, so I think he’s just one of those guys where you want the puck in his stick.”
While York wasn’t on the ice for Michigan’s goal Friday night, the principles of his role can easily be applied to the play Hayhurst made out of the same position.
“Ironically, (York) was tired because of a long shift the first night so we didn’t have him out there,” Pearson said. “We had Hayhurst in that position, and Hayhurst actually made the play to Will to Beecher, so there you go.”
One weekend is almost certainly too small of a sample size to make sweeping claims about the Wolverines’ power play returning to functionality, but signs were there for both the first and second units that there may not be a five-game drought again.
In Saturday’s game, junior forward Michael Pastujov found twine with Michigan’s second power-play unit for the first goal of the game — and his first tally of the season.
And Pearson feels confident that the Wolverines are starting to figure out the best positions for their players on each unit, whether that’s York moving down along the wall or Pastujov continuing to work from the right side, where he had success last year.
“You have to be careful and try to build your power play around what your guys can do well. Maybe in the past, we haven’t had guys in the right position. I don’t know. (Maybe) we’re trying to force some guys into some spots. Especially with new guys, you have no idea what they’re capable of. You think you do, but when you get in games, it’s different.”