Luke Martin didn’t hold back.
“I’m kind of sick of hearing about them,” the sophomore defenseman said after the Michigan hockey team’s practice Tuesday.
“Them” refers to Northeastern’s two superstar forwards, Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura, who Martin and the Wolverines will be tasked with somehow containing in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament opener in Worcester, Mass. And if Martin is that tired of hearing about them, the probable reason why is simple — they’re really, really good.
Michigan hasn’t faced a Hobey Baker Award finalist skater this season. In Gaudette and Sikura, it will meet two. Gaudette, perhaps the favorite to win college hockey’s most prestigious award, leads the country with 30 goals and 60 points. Sikura isn’t far behind with 32 assists and 53 points, giving the Huskies two of the nation’s three highest scorers.
“Their hockey IQ and skill levels are extremely high,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “And they have some chemistry. You can’t go down to the corner store and buy what they have. It’s a thing that they’ve been able to put together. They play well off each other, and they enjoy playing with each other and their entire line.”
If Pearson’s statement sounds familiar, that’s because it should. The chemistry he describes between Gaudette, Sikura and Nolan Stevens — the other member of Northeastern’s top line, who’s no slouch himself with 41 points — is the same type of chemistry that Pearson sees in the Wolverines’ own “DMC” front line of seniors Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone and junior Cooper Marody.
All season long, Michigan has seen opponents throw different looks at its dangerous front three. Some teams have opted to primarily use checking lines to pressure Dancs, Calderone and Marody, taking their space and scoring chances away. Others have chosen to counter the Wolverines’ top playmakers with their own.
So by now, Michigan has, from its own experience, learned just about every strategy it could use to keep Gaudette and Sikura from dominating.
And therein lies the Wolverines’ ace in the hole. Michigan finished No. 8 in the PairWise Rankings, ahead of the ninth-ranked Huskies by a razor-thin margin of .0004 RPI points. The reward for this? A No. 2 seed and (though the game is a mere hour from Northeastern’s campus) home-ice privileges, including last change, meaning that when Gaudette and Sikura take the ice during a stoppage, the Wolverines can sub in whoever they want to match up against them in response.
“That’s important, that’s a crucial piece,” Pearson said. “… Now, you have last change, but you’ve got to be able to stop them. I think we’ve got anybody who can play against them, but we’ll see how that all shakes out.”
Putting the right players on the ice, however, is basically all Michigan can do. Hockey isn’t like football or basketball, where teams can work on set plays, opponent-specific gameplans or make use of a scout team to simulate the teams they’ll face. Due to the breathless, free-flowing nature of the game, there’s essentially no way to replicate what Gaudette and Sikura bring to the table.
So instead of explicit instructions on how to stop the dynamic duo, Pearson has stressed the same things he stresses against any other team. He’ll just have to hope that his players can carry them out against two of the best forwards in the country.
“You can make your team aware of those players,” Pearson said. “Make sure you’re playing on the right side of the puck against them and make sure you’re getting it behind them so they have to play 200 feet. There’s more specific things you can do, but that’s easier said than done.”
There has been one specific area of emphasis this week for the Wolverines. It comes in the weakest facet of their game — special teams.
Gaudette and Sikura excel particularly on the power play, as 52 of their 113 points have come with the man advantage, fueling a Northeastern unit that scores 27 percent of the time. Meanwhile, Michigan’s struggles when down a man — its penalty kill ranks just 57th out of 60 teams in the country — have been documented to exhaustion.
Unlike trying to defend against Gaudette or Sikura’s shot or skating ability in the heat of a game, special teams can be put in a vacuum and worked on. And leading up to this weekend especially, the Wolverines need all the work they can get.
“We’ve done more with our penalty killing this week than we normally would,” Pearson said. “That’s a reflection on how they’ve done and who they are. … We still have to play our game but for special teams, for example, that’s something that you can slow down and practice.”
But by the time the puck drops at the DCU Center on Saturday, Michigan will have practiced all it can. From that point forward, the spontaneity of the game, as Pearson described, will take over.
So when Martin said that he was sick of hearing about Northeastern’s fearsome forward tandem, maybe that’s because he knows there’s only so much his team can work on in order to slow them down.
The Wolverines are already quite aware they’re in for a challenge greater than any they’ve faced thus far. Maybe that’s all the preparation they need.
“It’s not all X’s and O’s,” Pearson said. “… Things happen spontaneously and quick, and you just have to play.”