With 17 minutes left in Michigan’s game against Penn State at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 26, the Wolverines trailed 4-0.
But then sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes fired a shot at goaltender Peyton Jones, and redshirt sophomore forward Luke Morgan was there to clean up the rebound and send it home. After 43 scoreless minutes, the Michigan hockey team was on finally the board.
A few minutes later, the Wolverines were on the power play with a chance to further cut into the deficit. Penn State was able to clear the puck down the ice, and Hughes was the defenseman assigned to bring the puck back into the offensive zone.
As the sophomore skated toward center ice, Hughes tried to send a backward pass to a teammate. But there was no one there, and forward Alex Limoges picked up the puck and sent it past a sprawling junior goaltender Hayden Lavigne. It was the Nittany Lions’ fifth and final goal of the night — and the second that came from Hughes giving up the puck.
“That game against Penn State, (Hughes) stood up in the locker room after the game and said, ‘Hey, I was Penn State’s best player tonight,’ ” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson on Saturday. “First, you have to own it. I think that’s the first thing is you have to own it to be able to move forward and make changes. And he’s a smart guy. He knew it, he knew it. I give him a lot of credit for standing up in front of his teammates and saying that.”
After completing the first step of taking ownership for his mistakes, Hughes’ next move was to talk with the coaching staff and watch film from the game.
Pearson and the rest of his staff like to watch film with their players early in the week. Hockey is a sport more dependent on the decisions of an individual than other team sports, so every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, players will individually file into the coaches’ offices for a personal film session.
Hughes sat down with both Pearson and assistant coach Brian Wiseman — who spends his time focusing on the defensemen — after that game in New York to look at Hughes’ performance.
“He’s a smart hockey player,” Pearson said Monday. “He understands the game. At times they weren’t — it’s nothing he doesn’t know and the beauty of it is, it’s nothing you can’t overcome or you can’t correct. If it’s something you can’t correct or the player continues to do it, then you have an issue.
“But the way he plays, we’re gonna let him play his game, just like we would any of our players. There’s a certain style we play with and we’re gonna let guys play. They just have to limit their major mistakes. You’re gonna make mistakes, but you have to learn from them and try to limit them.”
It’s easy to look at Hughes’ turnovers in New York and say they’re the result of a player trying to get too cute or attempting to make an eye-popping play.
But according to Pearson, it’s the exact opposite.
“The thing with him is he wants to win so bad,” Pearson said. “He’s trying to create opportunities for us. You have to understand that. I don’t think sometimes a lot of people maybe get that. They just want him to dump it in and stay back, and anybody can do that. But it’s not in his DNA, so now we have to work with him to manage the game.”
And since that game in New York, Hughes has clearly internalized what he talked about with his coaches and worked to limit his mistakes.
His effort level has visibly been higher, and he’s made impressive plays in all four games since. This time, his plays have made Michigan’s highlight reel — not the other team’s.
Hughes is refocusing on the little things that make him successful, and it’s been effective thus far.
“As a competitor, when you don’t play that great, you want to follow up, trying to have a really good game and string together some good games,” Hughes said. “That’s what I think I’ve done, and I think that was my mindset. Just to — I think it was good for me just to refocus and get ready for the following weekend.”
Added Pearson: “I think he’s more aware defensively, more aware with the puck, more aware when he’s the last man, more aware when he can jump into the rush versus just putting himself in a bad position defensively. Being more physical, playing the body more. All those things.”
Bouncing back from a bad game is a process, and it’s not one that Hughes — the No. 7 overall draft pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and one of the top prospects in college hockey — has a lot of experience with.
But Hughes’ performance in the last four games shows that he’s moved on and come through to the other side, and his comments follow those same lines.
“I haven’t thought about New York since New York.”