Recapping the first half of the Michigan hockey season

The Michigan hockey team needs its offense to come alive in the second half of the season.

The Michigan hockey team needs its offense to come alive in the second half of the season.
Zoey Holmstrom/Daily

 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 6:52pm

Through 18 games, Michigan’s offense has failed to muster a consistent goal-scoring threat, relying on its defense and goaltending to keep the Wolverines competitive until the final seconds. This weekend, Michigan will face another challenging Big Ten opponent in No. 9 Minnesota, who it split the season series with last year.

Before the Wolverines resume conference play, the Daily recaps the first half of their season:

MVP: Goaltenders

It’s been the same story all season. Michigan’s offense struggles to control possession, and then the Wolverines must constantly defend the puck in their own zone. Fortunately for Michigan, its trio of netminders have proven themselves as a solid last line of defense. The Wolverines sit dead last nationwide in percentage of shots taken vs. opponent and as a result, Michigan’s goaltenders have faced a barrage of shots. However, the trio of Wolverines have earned a .924 save percentage, good for sixth best nationally.

Freshman goaltender Hayden Lavigne anchors the unit, ranking third in save percentage with a .937 clip. Before an illness forced him to miss a few games, Lavigne ranked first in goals-against average. Though he hasn’t officially been named the starter, statistically, Lavigne has shined the most.

Lavigne isn’t the only freshman making himself known between the pipes. Even though he has four losses in seven starts, Jack LaFontaine ranks first in saves on the Wolverines. Senior forward and captain Alex Kile praised the young goaltender after a rough loss to Penn State last month.

“He’s tough,” Kile said. “He’s a freshman, it’s not easy during this game. We didn’t really give him a great effort tonight defensively. We gave up 50-plus shots, so anytime you’re a goalie and you see 50 shots, it’s tough to win games and stop all the pucks.”

Rounding out the goaltenders is senior Zach Nagelvoort. While not a regular starter, Nagelvoort has been called upon multiple times this season — like in the Great Lakes invitational with LaFontaine — when one of the two freshmen has faced problems early in the game.

The three goaltenders have nearly singlehandedly ensured that Michigan stays competitive late in games.

Most improved player: Sam Piazza

On Oct. 7 against Union, Piazza scored the Wolverines’ first goal of the season at the 8:54 mark of the first frame, coming off a power play attempt. The game against the Dutchmen would prove to be the first step in a season of tremendous growth by the junior forward. Last year, it took until the Great Lakes Invitational — Michigan’s 17th game — for Piazza to notch his first goal. It turned out to be Piazza’s only goal of the season.

Recognizing Piazza’s improvement, Michigan coach Red Berenson consistently places him on both the penalty kill and power play, along with the Wolverines’ other top scorers.

“He’s a player who hasn’t played regularly in his first couple years, but he’s shown signs of taking the next step,” Berenson said in October. “I thought he showed some of that last year, and we didn’t play him maybe as much as we should’ve in the stretch run. But we’ve seen moments and we have high regard for his offensive vision on the ice and his puck skills, and now it’s starting to pay off for him.”

Through 18 games, Piazza ranks third on the Wolverines with five goals, including a team-high three on the power play. His continued success on special teams will prove essential to Michigan as it goes forward.

Top freshman: Will Lockwood

When Michigan’s offense needed a spark plug earlier this season, Lockwood would outsprint the opposition’s defensemen and attempt a shot on goal. For a team that lacked veteran presence, Lockwood immediately showed his ability to start games on the first line. Playing on a unit with Kile and fellow freshman Jake Slaker, Lockwood used speed to win pucks on opposite sides of the ice.

“My skating is one of my best attributes,” Lockwood said earlier this season. “It definitely helps to have my legs out on the ice. There’s also an aspect to it where you don’t want to overskate on the ice, (to skate) smart on the ice, but also use my speed in the right situation to my advantage.”

Currently, Lockwood ranks first in scoring on the Wolverines with seven goals and 13 points. He also leads Michigan in shooting efficiency with a .219 clip. While many freshmen have had to step up in more extended roles and learn the Wolverines’ playing style quickly, Lockwood has demonstrated why he is the highest-drafted Michigan player. He regularly leads the power play and scored twice this season on special teams. He has also notched three game-winning goals, a team-high.

Though he found himself in a scoring drought over the past few weeks, he scored in the GLI third-place game, showing promise as the season continues.

Top moment: Lockwood’s goal to defeat Michigan Tech

Michigan was in a familiar situation. Two weeks prior at home, the Wolverines held onto a slim lead against Union heading into the third period. But Michigan couldn’t hang onto its advantage, eventually falling to the Dutchmen, 4-3.

Against Michigan Tech, the Wolverines led 2-1 going into the final frame. Within 10 minutes however, the Huskies took a 3-2 lead. Michigan seemed primed for a similar fate, but Lockwood would not permit it. With 52 seconds remaining, senior forward Max Shuart passed the puck from behind the net to Lockwood, who had skated toward the middle of Michigan Tech’s zone, and Lockwood slapped it past the Huskies’ goaltender.

“When the game was on the line in the third, our team rallied,” Berenson said after the game. “Even though (Michigan Tech) tied the game on a weak goal on our part, our team rallied and played harder and gave ourselves a chance.”

Worst moment: Penn State series

In its Big Ten opener, Michigan traveled to State College as the underdog, but with hopes of surprising No. 6 Penn State. The Nittany Lions would jump out to a 5-0 lead before the Wolverines could find the net even once, and Michigan ended up losing the game 6-1.

The second game was similar. LaFontaine saved 53 shots, but the offense and special teams both struggled in a 5-1 loss. The attack mustered a measly 23 shots and its power play failed to take advantage of its three attempts. Defensively, Michigan’s penalty kill allowed two goals and 10 shots.

“I didn’t think our team had a good game in front of our goalie,” Berenson said after the Saturday game. “… But (Penn State) got behind us, they got through us, our forwards weren’t picking up men. I mean, give them credit. They won all the races, and they won all the battles and they got all the goals.”

Player to watch in second half: Cooper Marody

After a season watching from the bench and from the television while Michigan traveled, Cooper Marody is finally eligible to play. The sophomore forward was suspended until the Great Lakes invitational because of academic issues last winter. In just two games — a small sample size — he notched three assists. Berenson clearly believes the forward will continue his play from last season, inserting him on the first line against Michigan State in the GLI third-place game.

“The first game back, (it was) going to be a lot different than just practicing,” Marody said during the GLI. “It had been a while since I played a game and really got up to that speed.”

With Marody returning to the lineup, the Wolverines return their second-highest leading scorer from last season to a group that is lacking offensive firepower. In just two games, Marody has demonstrated his playmaking skills, and he will certainly be a player to pay closer attention to as Michigan continues conference play.

X-factor: Alex Kile

As the leading returning scorer of the Wolverines, many expected Kile to anchor Michigan’s offense. Through much of the first quarter of the season — much like the entire Wolverines’ offensive unit — he struggled to find any consistency. In his first 14 games, he tallied just two goals. Recently though, Kile has tabbed three goals in three contests.

“(Kile) really felt that this was not necessarily his team, but this was his time,” Berenson said last week. “He’d been part of a high-scoring machine last year, but when we lost all of those guys, now he looks around and it’s just him. He embraced that.

“I can’t tell you it’s gone smooth for him — I think it’s been a challenge. Maybe he hasn’t had the supporting cast. He was playing with two freshmen for the first number of games, and playing pretty well but not playing as consistently and productively as he would like, or that I would like.”

For Michigan to make any run at the postseason, it will need its captain to rally his fellow forwards. During his recent three-goal surge, the Wolverines have earned two wins and one loss.

It could be just the recipe for success that the Wolverines need.

With some signs of life in recent games against Wisconsin and Michigan State, and the return of Marody to the lineup, Michigan’s offense looks on the upswing.

This weekend’s matchup against Minnesota will provide the Wolverines with their first test of the second half of the season.