When the Wolverines skated off the ice at Munn Ice Arena on Dec. 8 after suffering a crippling 5-0 loss at the hands of a Spartan offense that took advantage of the dormant Michigan defense, the story read that the early spark had faded.
The No. 20 Wolverines (7-7-2 Big Ten, 12-10-2 overall) flipped the script this weekend, though, as a palpable and evident streamline from the back line to the front defined a series sweep over No. 12 Penn State (6-7-3, 13-10-3).
While most of the credit for Michigan’s successes thus far has been attributed to the likes of senior forward Tony Calderone and the rest of the first two offensive lines, series sweeps over No. 13 Minnesota and then the Nittany Lions this past weekend were the product of a stalwart defensive effort.
“You need that in this day and age and the way the game is,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after Friday’s victory. “You need your defensemen to come up in the play and add offense, but most importantly, they did a good job in our zone.”
Earlier in the season — particularly in the first matchup splits against the Golden Gophers and Penn State — the Michigan defense could be seen turning the puck over behind its own net, in the offensive zone and most notably at its own blue line.
Before, junior Nick Boka and sophomores Giffin Luce and Luke Martin represented the second and third lines of defensemen that weren’t playing up to their potential.
Even first-liners in junior Joe Cecconi and freshman Quinn Hughes — albeit Hughes plays as an attacking defenseman — could be seen giving up the puck on routine plays.
But, something clicked after the Wolverines were swept in a home-and-home series two weeks ago against top-ranked Notre Dame.
“I think one of the things we’re really doing is breaking the puck out so much better than we were earlier in the year,” Pearson said. “That makes it easier. You’re not in your zone as much and you’re forcing their good players to play in their zone.”
Perhaps the greatest sign of a defensive turnaround came at the hands of a human brick wall: Sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne.
Now the undeniable leader of the Wolverines’ defensive effort, Lavigne’s 77 saves this weekend saw him leaping all over the crease to limit the Nittany Lions to two goals, solely in the third period Saturday. His effort gave Michigan the backbone it needed.
And the rest of the defense followed suit.
“We’ve been communicating a lot better,” Lavigne said. “People know their routes a little bit better now than we did at the beginning of the year.
“We really just started paying the price for each other, we’ve got guys going down to block shots at the last minute … they’re just working hard.”
Luce, despite his double-penalty game Saturday, flew around the ice with textbook coordination alongside his defensive partner Boka, carrying the puck around their net and checking any Nittany Lion offense.
“They’ve been really good,” Pearson said. “And I think that’s why you’re seeing some of the results that you’ve seen from our team … Luke Martin, Nick Boka, Griffin Luce — we sat him two games and he’s bounced back and played fabulous — they’ve come out and they’re pushing to the next level and you’re seeing that from a lot of our players.”
Penn State forwards Andrew Sturtz, Brandon Biro and Denis Smirnov, who were deadly the last time the two teams met, were silent. A shutout Friday that continued through two periods of Saturday’s game proved the Wolverines’ back line had life again.
Blocked shots, aggressiveness on the boards and a lack of turnovers from the blue-liners was just the first stop on the defense’s train to dominance over these past two weeks. The forwards were getting involved too.
Sophomore center Jake Slaker — who has been fairly silent on the stat sheet — was diving in front of shots from the Penn State back line.
Senior left wing Dexter Dancs skated furiously back to the blue line to pressure Sturtz and company, providing support for a total-team defense that seemed to have an answer for anything the Nittany Lions threw at it.
At the beginning of the season, Pearson wanted to see a high-paced team committed to a speedy counterattack.
After this weekend, it appears that goal is coming to fruition.
With yet another Big Ten series sweep over the Nittany Lions, the team’s recent successes — especially on the defensive end — may be more than just a temporary streak.