On Friday, for the first time this season, the Michigan hockey team will hit the road as it heads up to Sault Ste. Marie to face Lake Superior State for a two game series. And next Saturday, it’ll play another game on the road; the weekend after that it’ll do it again, and the same goes even for the weekend after that.
Long story short, with seven of their next eight games being played away from Ann Arbor, the Wolverines will be spending a lot of the beginning of their season on the road. That’s no easy task, even from a purely logistical standpoint. But Michigan is looking to do more than just get to these games, it’s looking to win, and that’s something that requires even more on the road.
The upcoming slate is no joke. It’s not a cupcake schedule meant to warm the Wolverines up for conference play, but quite the opposite. Michigan will square off against ranked opponents six times, and it’ll battle physical, grinding opponents like Western Michigan and Notre Dame who will combat the Wolverines’ speed with power.
But Michigan coach Brandon Naurato doesn’t seem daunted.
“I think it’s great,” Naurato said. “I think we got a really tough first half, and I think that’s good for us, kind of see what we’re made of. … Like these freshmen and the team in general, just thrown in the fire.”
And Naurato isn’t the only one who thinks this. His players feel the same way.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing on the road,” junior goalie Erik Portillo said. “It’s loud, you’ve got a student section that kind of hates you, it kind of gets you going.”
Senior defenseman Jay Keranen shared a similar sentiment.
“I love it. I love when their crowds get nasty a little bit,” Keranen said. “It gets you fired up.
For Michigan to succeed over this stretch, it’ll have to hope that Portillo and Keranen’s comments about being energized on the road hold true. Not only because of where the Wolverines are playing, but because intensity has been an aspect of play that Naurato has pushed for early in the season.
Naurato has had only positive things to say about his squad’s work ethic, but he has been steadfast in his desire for more physical play and quicker starts from his team. This was something he emphasized after the Wolverines’ loss against Boston University on Sunday.
“We did not start on time,” Naurato said Sunday. “We didn’t defend as hard as we needed to, we weren’t as physical as we needed to. Everyone can talk about our offense, but you win hockey games by checking for offense and playing the right way.”
And he’s right, because Michigan looks best when it plays with a hard edge. It’s a speedy and talented team, but when it combines that with a more grinding approach, it thrives. The Wolverines often settle into that style of play eventually, but so far, it’s taken them a little while to get there in games.
It happened in the season opener against Lindenwood, and both of last weekend’s games saw the Terriers take charge in the first five minutes. And on Sunday that was something that Boston University took advantage of. The Terriers came out and knocked the Wolverines off of the puck for the first 45 minutes, and it turned into success as Michigan couldn’t get it going until too late.
“I just didn’t think we were good on the wall,” Naurato said Tuesday. “I didn’t think we won enough battles on the walls. It wasn’t that we were soft or we didn’t want to or we were tired, it’s just a habit.”
As the Wolverines take to the road, that’s a habit they’re looking to kick.
Michigan has the tools and has shown the potential necessary to walk out of this road stretch with six or seven wins. And the Wolverines have emphasized that nothing would bring them more joy than dismaying the fans of their opponents. But to get to that point, they’ll need to bring their own intensity, and they can’t wait ten minutes for it to show up.