During the first period of its Big Ten home opener against then-No. 4 Minnesota, the Michigan hockey team saw three viable scoring opportunities — but none broke past elite goaltender Eric Schierhorn.
This was a microcosm of one flaw in the Wolverines’ distinguished weekend — they struggled to find the net early despite creating many opportunities for themselves.
“I think we had some good chances,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “And sometimes you finish and some you don’t.”
Though the Wolverines eventually triumphed in their Friday slate, the Golden Gophers built a dangerous scoring cushion early on. Right after the first intermission, they put three on the board within eight minutes.
“It’s awesome that we have character to be able to come back from whatever deficit,” said junior forward Cooper Marody, “but it’s not something you want to build on as far as doing that every game.”
Pearson mirrored this sentiment, emphasizing that playing behind with three-or four-goal deficits will not be a sustainable practice moving forward.
And his solution to this problem? Don’t get so far behind in the first place.
“You can’t continue to play from behind,” Pearson said. “I think (we need) more preparation, and attention to detail defensively. We’ve got to be better defensively; you can’t give anything up until you get something going.”
This week in practices, Michigan has put a greater emphasis on the defensive zone, focusing its attention on odd-man rushes and not turning the puck over the blue line from the neutral zone.
Minnesota’s third goal Friday night came when Golden Gopher forwards Brent Gates Jr. and Tyler Sheehy created an odd-man rush in Michigan’s zone, en route to a clean shot past sophomore goaltender Jack LaFontaine.
The following night, defensive lapses were responsible for another Minnesota goal, when defenseman Ryan Lindgren found a breakaway, bringing the Golden Gopher lead to 3-0.
With more direct attention to these game-like defensive scenarios, Pearson believes the Wolverines can curb the number of scoring opportunities for their opposition.
He largely sees this lack of attention on defensive play stemming from how defense is treated from the time hockey players begin their careers.
“From the time you’re raised up in hockey, you get home and the first question your parents or grandparents ask is ‘Did you win and how many goals did you score?’” Pearson said. “It’s not ‘Did you block a shot?’ or ‘How well defensively did you do?’ It’s all about offense. It’s ingrained. So we’ve got to change that.”
This mentality, since almost innate, can take time to change. However, Pearson believes the defensive tweaks his team needs to make won’t be major, as they tend to be representative of individual mistakes and not holistic issues.
“I will say of the goals we gave up (this weekend) everything can be changed,” Pearson said. “It wasn’t a total breakdown of the system.”
Michigan sees the responsibility of protecting its net as a duty of the entire team, and not solely the responsibility of its defensemen and goaltenders.
“If one of your five guys on the ice messes up, you’re in trouble,” Pearson said. “You’re in trouble of giving up a goal.”
Sharpening the defense this week could see an almost immediate effect, as Michigan’s upcoming series is against another top dog with a hot offense: No. 9 Wisconsin. The Badgers have netted at least one goal during the first period in each of their seven wins this season — notably scoring three before the first intermission Friday against Michigan State.
If the Wolverines are able to reduce these offensive efforts, they will leave more room to get ahead early, and not have to worry again about making extraordinary comebacks.