There was a heightened sense of urgency at Yost Ice Arena late Tuesday afternoon. Throughout practice, voices were louder, whistles more purposeful, huddles more frequent, and then, to top it off, the Michigan hockey team closed out with intense goal-line-to-goal-line conditioning.
The Wolverines are coming off three road losses. First, a 4-1 loss to then-No. 18 Western Michigan in a hostile environment, where the team fell behind moments after the puck drop. And last weekend Michigan got swept by No. 9 Ohio State, losing both affairs by one goal and looking somewhat out of sorts.
“There’s not much room for mistakes right now, especially coming off three losses,” said senior forward Will Lockwood. “Attention to detail is huge. I think our coaches are just holding us accountable to that.”
Finding the root cause of the losses is challenging, as each game was unique. One commonality, though, is that senior forward Jake Slaker was absent due to an undisclosed injury. Last season, he tallied 25 points. He looks suited to return this weekend for the home series against Minnesota, but over the last two weekends, his absence made a mark.
Offensive struggles were quite apparent in the recent series. The Wolverines couldn’t keep control of the puck in the attacking zone and thus had a hard time generating consistent scoring chances. Lockwood notes that with the chances they did get, capitalizing was a hurdle.
Slaker sees himself as a vocal, high-energy player for whom speed is a key asset. While it’s unlikely he would’ve solved all of Michigan’s problems, that skill set could have provided the offense a key burst.
“Just from knowing him well he’s a natural goalscorer,” Lockwood said. “Even in practice recently, he’s been lighting up our goalies pretty much all practice, and I think when he comes back he’s gonna be hungry. He hasn’t scored yet, but he’s someone who can put the puck in the net at ease. So I think those one-goal games could have been different if he were in the lineup.”
Watching from the sidelines is something new for Slaker. He was a contributor ever since joining the program, and in his first three years missed just one game. Missing extended time has taken some getting used to.
“It’s definitely tough, especially after the last few games,” Slaker said. “We haven’t won, so it’s tough not to be able to be out there and try to help the team come out with a win or something. But there’s a lot of learning you can do from watching the games.”
Slaker hasn’t watched many hockey games, only tape. Sitting out lets him weigh what works well for other players with what doesn’t, and he understands this could improve his own game.
Off the ice, Slaker has made sure to stay involved with the team. He was quick to offer his thoughts on the Wolverines’ play.
“I know Slaker was critiquing,” Lockwood said. “He’d come in between periods and say this and that, and after games he’d have different opinions on things because you kind of get a different perspective when you’re up in the stands, and you can see the game a little bit better. So he had a lot of insight to that and it was a good help to the team.”
As an alternate captain, Slaker continues to be outspoken while not playing. He’s central to team meetings and always tries to give his teammates the energy and advice that they need. Regardless, Michigan prefers having him on the ice.
“He’s a big leader for our team, and he brings a lot to the table offensively and defensively,” Lockwood said. “To have a senior leader out of the lineup always hurts you. We look forward to him coming back.”