Through its first two weekends of play this season, the Michigan hockey team has acquitted itself well — but it hasn’t necessarily proven anything.
In trouncing Windsor, 8-2, and sweeping Lindenwood, the Wolverines demonstrated their talent, speed and grittiness. But while their performances against the Lancers and Lions were solid, not much can be gleaned from them.
Neither Lindenwood nor Windsor are expected to be tournament contenders, but against the Lions, Michigan looked fallible, falling behind in both games before mounting a comeback. This weekend though, facing No. 9 Boston University, the competition ramps up, and with it, so do the stakes.
“They’re very similar to us,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said on Tuesday. “They’re a good team, they’re well coached, and they’ve got good players.”
Naurato is right, because beyond generalizations, BU’s style of play is practically a mirror image of the Wolverines. It’s a speedy, skill based team with several high end NHL-caliber players on its roster and a talented freshman class. And similar to Michigan, the only knock on its squad is that its small, with the roster averaging 5-foot-8 and 188lbs.
Even off-ice, the Terriers mirror the Wolverines in that they’re led by a first year coach, Jay Pandolfo, after Albie O’Connel was fired after failing to make the NCAA Tournament last season.
Both teams are talented, both teams are fast and both teams are unproven up to this point. If Michigan can find success against BU, it will be telling. But cementing its identity won’t come from beating a highly ranked team, it’ll come from how they do so. The Wolverines need consistent play to it to topple the Terriers, and this weekend, that could very well come down to three things.
Following Michigan’s come from behind victory over Lindenwood last Saturday, Naurato was critical of his team’s first period performance. And in his eyes, his squad’s early struggles came down to a lack of physicality.
“We just, we have to check to create our offense. We have to check to create our offense,” Naurato said after pause. “When we just hope for it or cheat the game, it’s not gonna come. That’s just hockey in general.”
The Wolverines are not a brawny team, but so far, they have looked best when they’ve been willing to be physical. And where that’s most apparent is on the Granowicz, Estapa and Draper line. All three, senior Nick Granowicz, sophomore Mark Estapa and freshman Kienan Draper, are forwards, and none are considered to be Michigan’s premier stars. But so far they’ve been one of its most productive lines, and its because they hit.
They’re chippy, they forcibly separate opponents from the puck and they get under their skin. And for that reason, Naurato had the line take the ice first on Saturday. The message was clear, he wanted the rest of his squad to play more like them.
“They bring energy every time,” Naurato said Saturday.
The bottom line is, if the Wolverines are going to find success against Boston, it has to include a physical element. With the Terriers being similarly sized, playing the body can force pucks loose and wear them down, and that’s exactly what Michigan’s looking to do.
Preventing odd man rushes:
In both Friday and Saturday nights games against Lindenwood, similar sequences took place. The game started slowly; the Wolverines built overwhelming pressure and the Lions caught the defense flat footed for an odd man rush and capitalized to break the ice. It happened multiple times.
That’s unsustainable for Michigan though. Because while junior goaltender Erik Portillo is a bright spot, these situations hang him out to dry and inevitably will lead to goals against. And against an even speedier, more skilled BU, it certainly won’t suffice.
“You know if a D goes down and we don’t have somebody that fills,” Naurato said. “That would be another way to give up rush chances when we don’t have the puck.”
The Wolverines can’t get overzealous on offense, and when a defenseman does rush in, someone will need to step up at the point. If not, they could get burned.
Lindenwood couldn’t build sustained pressure often last weekend, and so aside from the odd man rushes, the defense handled itself well. But the Terriers will be able to build that pressure, and defensive discipline and preventing the rush will be even more vital.
Power play prowess:
If there’s one aspect Naurato enjoys coaching most, it’s the power play.
“I’m very pessimistic on the power play because I take so much pride in it,” Naurato said. “… As a power play guy in general, you just get confidence from touching the puck and if you get a couple early, you’re just feeling good about yourself.”
So far, the Wolverines’ abilities with an extra skater has been very solid. They went 3-12 against Lindenwood, and 4-8 against Windsor. The power play, at its best, is where Michigan is most potent on offense. Naurato usually runs a four forward power play with freshman and sophomore forwards Adam Fantilli and Mackie Samoskevich, respectively, playing as key scorers. It’s a deadly combination, and can often flip momentum.
But against BU, it needs to not only change momentum, but continue to convert. A good power play can be a part of Michigan’s team identity. And facing stiffer competition, that identity will need to continue to shine through if the Wolverines are to find success.
This weekend, Michigan has the chance to prove that it’s a genuine contender for the first time against a solid opponent. And whether or not that happens will come down to whether or not the Wolverines can craft an identity.