In South Bend, Ind. on Friday, sophomore forward Adam Winborg notched the first goal of the Michigan hockey team’s series against Notre Dame, a goal that would catalyze the rest of the offense to rout the top team in the country.
Winborg is just one example of an emerging category of Wolverine skaters who fill a utility role.
“Yeah, he scored a number of goals on a couple power plays last year and he’s willing to block shots on the PKs,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson, “and he’s good on face-offs. So he can play, he’s one of those utility players.
“I guess you can play him in a lot of different situations and trust him. And that allows us to be able to slot him into different areas in the game and that’s where his value comes. It’s just, he’s so versatile.”
While the spotlight for the 13th-ranked Wolverines (11-10-3 Big Ten, 16-3-3 overall) have mostly been placed on veteran top-line leadership, Michigan has found its backbone in the younger utility players.
Joining Winborg’s ranks on offense are sophomore Nick Pastujov, freshman Jack Becker and junior Brendan Warren.
The trio has combined for 32 points thus far — which isn’t even as many points as junior forward Cooper Marody's leading 37 — that adds a marginal advantage. While Winborg’s goal helped the Wolverines prevail over Notre Dame, their offensive contribution pales in comparison to their off-puck feats.
“Personally, for me, it’s been a little bit of a different season than last year, but it’s been good,” Winborg said. “I have a good role on the team, like killing penalties and working five-on-five and trying to do that to the best of my ability.”
As evident in the series against the Fighting Irish, the entire Michigan squad was hustling all over the ice, blocking shots and killing penalties — something that wasn’t so apparent in the beginning of the season.
In roughly four minutes of man-disadvantage time Sunday, the Wolverines yielded no tallies.
In its two past series, Michigan has let just two power-play goals in, and much of that can be attributed to the likes of Winborg, Pastujov, Becker and Warren, all of whom have taken a prominent role in shot-blocking and clearing.
“This year is more of a PK role and I’m enjoying that,” Winborg said. “I think that’s a big part of the game and it for sure can help a team like in tight games like last weekend, it’s one goal games and if you can prevent them from scoring then it’s going to help out the team.”
And, with Pearson’s recent emphasis on varying the lineup, every player has gotten the chance to work on different lines, even in huge games like this past weekend.
“Now we know we have some good chemistry on certain lines,” Pearson said. “And you know you always have that in the bank but it’s good to be able to, even in a game, just throw different guys out to see what you have.”
While teams in the past have found success when specializing players into different concrete roles, this year, Michigan has found success in quite the opposite.
With numerous young utility players on the roster with substantial playing time, the Wolverines have excelled in having their skaters play loosely.