Some players thrive with their backs against the wall.
Few moments throughout a hockey game better reveal who those players are than on the penalty kill. The Michigan hockey team may have found a pair of skaters who fit that mold.
With the loss of sophomore forward Josh Norris, who would frequently be on the man-disadvantage, the success of the penalty-killing duo of freshman forward Garrett Van Wyhe and sophomore forward Dakota Raabe is increasingly important.
Last season, Van Wyhe was killing penalties for the Fargo Force. Van Wyhe, who had a plus-minus rating of 19 for the Force last season, was a big part of that penalty kill. That team went on to win the 2018 Clark Cup –– the prize jewel of the USHL.
The six-foot-two, 200-pound frame of the defensive-minded freshman forward at times seems as though it is gliding faster than it should. Raabe, the skater who is usually paired with him on the penalty kill, is fast and defensive-minded, much like Van Wyhe.
But with regards to physical appearance, the two could not be more different. They are like foils to one another in that aspect: Raabe stands at five-foot-nine and is thirty pounds lighter than Van Wyhe.
And yet, despite the physical differences, the mentality hardly differs.
“It starts on the faceoff,” Van Wyhe said about the mindset on the penalty kill. “That’s the first battle. Then it’s one-on-one battles from there.”
Like a craftsman describing his work, he continued.
“So, if you get that faceoff, there’s an automatic 20 seconds killed getting it all the way down the ice and resetting and doing it again. But other than that just kind of, if you see an opportunity to jump, you jump it, and then getting in the way of shots is a little kind of abstract –– the thought process. You don’t really want to get in front of the flying puck when it’s going that fast.”
One guy who has a propensity for getting his body in front of a shot is Raabe.
“He’s blocking shots, last year he didn’t block many shots,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson about the sophomore. “He’s sticking his nose in there this year. He’s grown. He’s matured. He’s a much better player.”
And though not clearly represented by the numbers, sophomore forward Dakota Raabe has made a leap this season. That may be best demonstrated by the level of trust Michigan coach Mel Pearson is showing in Raabe. He has featured prominently on penalty kills alongside Van Wyhe and, along with freshman forward Nolan Moyle, has been a part of perhaps the Wolverines’ most consistent line as of late.
Pearson expressed a sense of pride with the interest that the linemates have shown on the penalty kill.
“I think that’s when you really start to see your penalty kill improve, when your players start to take ownership,” Pearson said. “When they start to get more involved. They almost become coaches when in your meetings they say, ‘Hey, what about this?’ or ‘Maybe we can try this instead of that,’ then you know the players are involved. Then, you know they’ve got some skin in the game.”
Currently, Michigan ranks a middling fourth among Big Ten teams with a 79.3 penalty-kill percentage. It is a figure that will have to improve throughout the remainder of the season if the Wolverines hope to make a postseason appearance.
For now, though, it seems as though Michigan may be on the right track.
“I think we finally just started clicking within,” Raabe said. “We just kind of sacrificed more, made (the penalty kill) kind of a priority in a way. And we’ve been having success for it and hopefully keep that going in the future.”