Mel Pearson has spent the last couple of weeks emphasizing Michigan’s need to get more offensive output from its defensemen. In Saturday night’s win over then-No. 14 Notre Dame, Pearson saw what he’d been pushing come to fruition.
Sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg scored the game-tying goal in the second period, and fellow sophomore blueliner Jack Summers followed with the game winner just a few minutes later. Blankenburg also notched an assist on senior forward Jake Slaker’s empty-net goal, and freshman defenseman Cam York made the pass to Blankenburg for his goal.
It was just what Pearson was hoping to see.
“We got some goals from our defensemen,” Pearson said Saturday night. “We’ve been talking about that the last couple weeks. We need to get more offense from our defensemen, just the way teams play.”
On Monday, Pearson elaborated on why getting offensive production from the blueline is so key with the way teams play these days.
“You can almost draw a line from the back of the boards through the dots up to the top of the circles and everybody packs it in and gives you the perimeter,” Pearson said. “Most teams are going to give you the outside. It’s not like basketball where you have to defend a 3-point shot or anything like that, so everybody just packs it in. And then you’ve got to try to get it through them and the goalie, so your defensemen are gonna have the puck a lot and they’re gonna have to make plays.”
With Summers’ and Blankenburg’s goals on Saturday, the work the defensive corps has been doing in practice this season began to show up.
Nearly every day in practice, the Wolverines run drills that require defensemen to have the puck on their stick and make a play to get it to the net. On Monday, the first drill of the day involved two forwards at the net front, working on tipping in shots from defensemen at the blueline. It was far from the only drill where Michigan’s defensemen were put in position to score.
“In practice, when the (defensemen) are joining the rush, just trying to score and bury your chances,” York said. “A lot of times, you’re out there defending for a while and it’s hard to join the rush just because you’re tired or you’re out of breath or whatever, but just trying to get an extra leg and help out the forwards in the offensive zone as much as we can is big for us and will help us score goals.”
Summers’ game-winner exemplified what York means about the defensemen helping the forwards in the offensive zone.
As senior forward Will Lockwood worked through the top of the offensive zone with the puck, Summers moved toward the front of the net. It put him in position to receive a pass through the zone and send a backhand shot into the net’s top corner — a play typically made by a forward, but with Lockwood up by the blueline, Summers crashed down to take that spot.
“(Summers’) goal, especially, I think that’s big,” Blankenburg said. “Kinda jumping down when that forward comes up. I feel like that’s kinda what we envision when we want (defensemen) to jump up in the play, especially when we had possession in the (offensive) zone.”
The Wolverines have particularly put focus on defensemen jumping up in the play to create odd-man rushes and add pressure in the offensive zone.
Through the first half of the season, blueliners like senior Griffin Luce — who has 12 points in 117 career games — could often be seen joining the rush, even when it was unlikely they’d be scoring themselves. Simply having the extra person up in the play increases the chances of getting an outnumbered rush or the defending team leaving a forward wide open for a scoring chance.
“Having a fourth guy in the rush, creating a four-on-two or whatever, you have a lot better chance of scoring and creating opportunities,” York said. “I think going into the second half, we need to do a lot more of it and it’ll help us out a lot.”
Defensemen accounted for two of Michigan’s six goals in its sweep over the Fighting Irish — just its second sweep of the season. As the Wolverines look to string wins together and turn their season around in the second half, Pearson will be looking to his defensive corps to help make it happen.