Orion Sang: Wolverines should embrace ugly hockey

Tony Calderone's goal Saturday wasn't one for the highlight reel, but it counted all the same.

Tony Calderone's goal Saturday wasn't one for the highlight reel, but it counted all the same. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

 

Sunday, November 27, 2016 - 4:45pm

It wasn’t the prettiest of goals, but aesthetics matter little in hockey.

Pucks are inelegantly shaped, and the science of how they bounce and slide around the ice is inexact and imprecise. For every beautiful goal that takes place through meticulously executed passing and skating, there are goals like the one Tony Calderone scored for the No. 16 Michigan hockey team against Lake Superior State on Saturday — a matter of being in the right position at the right time, and being able to furiously stab at the puck with an outstretched stick.

The visuals didn’t matter much to Calderone, nor to his teammates and coaches. After all, an ugly goal still goes down on the stat sheet, and this is a team that has scored and will continue to score its fair share of ugly goals this season.

Gone is the explosive and precise Wolverine offense of yesteryear. In its place is a team that will grind both its opponent and itself down over 60 minutes — a team that no longer averages nearly five goals a game, but is better in almost every other aspect of the game.

“Obviously, we lost a lot of scoring (last year), so someone’s gotta step up,” Calderone said Saturday. “I’m just trying to do my best to fill the role, but I know (those) are pretty big shoes to fill. But I’m trying my best, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Of the 15 teams that sit ahead of Michigan in the USCHO rankings Sunday, just one of them — No. 10 Bemidji State — averages fewer goals per game than the Wolverines do at 2.75.

There probably aren’t any Hobey Baker finalists skating at Yost this year, and that hurts Michigan in games like its 3-1 loss to the Lakers Friday night, when any spectacular individual effort would’ve been appreciated. The Wolverines were plagued by sluggish and sloppy play that coach Red Berenson called “holiday hockey,” failing to muster any sort of cohesive attack during 5-on-5 play. Their lone goal came with them up a man, when a Calderone shot beat the Lake Superior State goaltender five-hole.

But if Friday’s game was a testament to how easily things can go wrong for a team that plays this brand of hockey, Saturday’s win was a step in the direction that maybe, just maybe, this brand can still work.

Excluding the late empty-netter, Michigan’s three goals came off Laker turnovers. Early in the first period, junior forward Dexter Dancs swiped the puck from behind the net before gliding in front for a shot. It missed, but Calderone was there in the ensuing scrum to shove it past the goaltender.

Then, senior forward Max Shuart created his own breakaway after intercepting an errant Laker pass. The initial effort fell short once again, but the puck found its way to Nolan De Jong at the top of the slot, and the senior defenseman found the back of the net for the second goal of his season and career.

Later, with 13 minutes left in the third, another bad Laker pass reached the stick of James Sanchez just above the slot, and the freshman forward threw one on net that managed to beat the goaltender.

Michigan’s victory, which salvaged a split of the series, was evidence that the Wolverines can survive without production from their best. Saturday’s game was their first win of the year without a member of the top line — anchored by freshmen Will Lockwood and Jake Slaker — tallying a point.

“Tony’s line has been playing really well,” Berenson said Saturday. “(Adam) Winborg, (Dexter) Dancs and Calderone have been a strong line for us, even though the Lockwood line is getting a lot of attention. Winborg’s line is coming on strong (and) giving us that secondary scoring that we need.”

If Michigan’s secondary scoring truly is turning the corner, as Berenson says, it should make a big difference, because all the pieces for a good team are already in place. Aided by stingy goaltending and a newfound propensity to block shots, the Wolverines boast the nation’s best penalty kill, seventh-best team defense and 10th-best power play.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the Wolverines will begin conference play against No. 8 Penn State after shellacking the Nittany Lions last year to the tune of 33 goals in five wins.

After all, the roles are reversed this year. This Penn State team just so happens to be a close analogue to last year’s Michigan squad, racing to an 11-1-1 start thanks to an offense that leads the nation with 4.77 goals per game (the Wolverines averaged 4.76 last year).

“Penn State’s a tough place to play,” Berenson said. “They’re arguably the best team in the country, I think they’re 11-1-1, and they’re leading the country in goals, so they’re a formidable opponent and we’re going to have to even up our game from tonight and be ready for that.”

Michigan will enter this weekend as the underdog against an ascendant Penn State team — a position it never found itself in last year. The Wolverines will have to hope their defense and goaltenders can bog down the Nittany Lion offense, and they’ll have to hope the Lockwood-Slaker line can snap out of it.

And if neither of those things come to fruition, Michigan will have to remember: ugly goals count the same on the scoreboard.