Just four days after its season-opening sweep, the No. 6 Michigan hockey team will take the ice for its first away series against No. 14 Wisconsin.
Both teams made strong first impressions last weekend, each coming away with 2-0 records. The Wolverines notched decisive victories against Arizona State — 8-1 and 3-0, respectively — while the Badgers put up a slightly less dominant performance against Notre Dame, 2-0 and 5-3, on the road.
Despite the commanding performance in the first two games, Michigan coach Mel Pearson has a laundry list of improvements he’d like to see in Thursday’s match-up (6:00, Fox Sports Detroit).
“We have to do a better job with the puck,” Pearson said. “I thought we got too cute, tried to get too fancy with the puck a lot. … Our shift length was way too long and we’ve got to clean that up, especially when you’re playing these back to back games — four games in seven days — you can’t stay out there too long and get burned out.”
Last season, Michigan took three out of four contests against Wisconsin, but it’s hard to anticipate how they’ll stack up this year — both teams look drastically different than the last time they faced-off in the beginning of February.
Here’s what to watch for when the Wolverines’ take the ice in Madison.
Badgers goaltender Daniel Lebedeff posted a save percentage of .892 last year, the worst in the Big Ten. For context, 2020 Big Ten Goaltender of the Year and current junior goaltender Strauss Mann registered a save percentage of .970 during his sophomore campaign at Michigan.
But this season may be a different story. Graduate-transfer Robbie Beydoun started between the pipes for Wisconsin, registering 54 saves and allowing just three goals for a save percentage of .947 across two games last weekend.
Before his switch to Madison, Beydoun played three years at Michigan Tech where he was initially recruited by Pearson.
“(Beydoun) is a quality kid, quality goaltender,” Pearson said. “I think they’re hoping he can take them to that next level and get good goaltending. This weekend I thought he played pretty well.”
Still, two games is too small a sample size to declare him the Badgers’ saving grace, especially considering Michigan is more potent offensively than the Fighting Irish. The Wolverines took 84 shots against the Sun Devils compared to Notre Dame’s 57.
It will be intriguing to see how Beydoun holds up against the offensive prowess of Michigan’s freshmen class — and vice versa.
Power plays and penalties
Special teams played a large role in both games last weekend. Wisconsin implemented a five-forward power play, a rare but not unheard of approach. The unconventional strategy seemed to pay off against Notre Dame, as the Badgers scored twice off six power play opportunities.
It will be interesting to see if they keep up the approach against the Wolverines. Wisconsin faces a steeper challenge in Michigan’s penalty kill unit, which allowed just one goal on 12 penalties this past weekend.
Though the penalty kill was effective, the Wolverines racked up more penalties than Pearson was comfortable with.
He said they are trying to be “the most disciplined team in the league” but thinks their emotions got the best of them this weekend. If the Badgers continue with their offensively aggressive unit, that many penalties may cause an issue for Michigan this weekend.
On the flip side, the Wolverines took an aggressive approach to the penalty kill against Arizona State, both a focus of offseason practice and a product of natural offensive instinct, according to Pearson.
Michigan took three shots short-handed on Saturday afternoon, though none of them made it between the posts.
“We think we have a number of players that can not only kill penalties but be a threat shorthanded because of that hockey IQ,” Pearson said.
The Wolverines may be able to take advantage of the lack of defense on a five-forward power play unit to generate their own offensive production.
Who’s taking the ice?
Michigan’s roster may not be in full force tomorrow. In the first period of Sunday’s game, sophomore forward Johnny Beecher took a blindside hit that sidelined him for the rest of the game.
While Pearson said Beecher is doing well, it’s unknown whether he will be available for the series.
Wisconsin will be missing a key member of their lineup. Forward Dylan Holloway — one of two on the Badgers’ roster that notched two goals during opening-weekend — won’t be in Madison to face Michigan. Holloway left for the Canada World Juniors Evaluation camp, the same camp Pearson refused to release freshman forward Owen Power to attend.
Still, Wisconsin has options when it comes to forwards. Cole Caufield tallied 36 points last season. Roman Ahcan had 25. Linus Weissbach had 22.
“They’re talented up front,” Pearson said. “Their first six forwards are maybe as good as any group in our league.
“They’re solid, good team speed, extremely well coached. I like the way they play the game. It’s going to be very challenging, but we’re looking forward to the weekend.”
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