Michigan penalty kill shows signs of new aggression

Tuesday, October 8, 2019 - 10:52pm

The Michigan hockey team looks to improve its penalty kill this year and has already showed improvement after Sunday’s game against Windsor.

The Michigan hockey team looks to improve its penalty kill this year and has already showed improvement after Sunday’s game against Windsor. Buy this photo
Alexandria Pompei/Daily

The repeated sound of a stick clashing against the ice reverberated throughout Yost Ice Arena on Sunday.

Clank, clank. Clank, clank.

Noise had already filled the atmosphere — the roar of the crowd, shouts of the players, even the rattling of the glass as puck and body clashed against it. But the clanking of the stick pierced through it all.

The clock on the screen that hung over the ice ticked down, informing all of the time left in the period. In one of the corners, another timer counted down. This one was for the penalty.

As the penalty clock hit below 10 seconds, the Windsor goaltender started his tirade against the ice, letting his teammates know their power play was coming to a close. 

Clank, clank. Clank, clank.

And soon after, the sound from the goaltender was muted, and a new set of clanking stick sounds followed. The skaters on the Michigan hockey team’s bench smacked their sticks against the boards, as if to give a round of applause to the penalty killing unit for successfully fending off a Lancer man-advantage.

In the exhibition game against Windsor, the Wolverines held their opponent to zero power-play goals on four attempts and put their new, aggressive penalty kill system on full display.

“Our goals are to gain momentum for the team and spend as little time in our zone as possible,” said assistant coach Kris Mayotte, who has been handed the reins for the Michigan penalty kill.

As the mindset on all penalty killing should be, the Wolverines hope to achieve success with a man down in a different fashion than last year — adding aggressiveness to their defending. During the exhibition, Michigan didn’t allow the Lancers to get many open looks, constantly putting pressure on their passing game up top. As Windsor players passed the puck back and forth to each other, all four Wolverines on the penalty kill would find a player to put pressure on, creating high turnover rates in the defensive zone.

“I thought that we did a good job of limiting their options like our D-core was talking about, it just didn't seem like they had good opportunities to set up,” said senior defenseman Luke Martin. “And then once they did, I thought we had done a good job with our sticks, and body positioning.”

And even before the puck entered Michigan’s defensive zone, the pressure was already on.

Whenever they can, the Wolverines apply pressure by forechecking on the penalty kill.

“It puts us in a good position to potentially end their plays before they even get into our zone,” Martin said.

When the opposition gets into the offensive zone, Martin believes it would take a “good puck-moving power play unit” to break down their penalty kill. But with the amount of on-puck pressure given, moving the puck would be a tall task.

The new-look penalty kill is heavily dependent on all four skaters and the goaltender being on the same page. If only one skater pushes forward, the effort goes to waste, as the player being pressured can move the puck to an open teammate.

But the team is responding well to the new system and being in-sync, learning when one goes, all go.

“I think when we’re working in tandem,” Martin said, “it can’t just be one guy going, three guys watching.

“... Every time we do it and go through it we're looking better.”

And the strength of the team in the system isn’t just the unity in its aggression, but also the sense of understanding and ease of learning. Mayotte pointed out that in a game, there will be moments few and far between that will go exactly as drawn up. 

“You’re going to get different looks that you don't practice against,” Mayotte said. “It’s a much more fluid situation. Rather than we know how to kill against structure and things like that. It’s more of the hockey side of just playing when things don't go perfectly.”

The team saw moments throughout the penalty kills where bounces went in favor of Windsor. But the ability to improvise and work around broken plays allowed the Wolverines to successfully kill off any chances at the net. And when the opportunity arose, they pushed.

“Because once that happens, then the execution becomes pretty seamless,” Mayotte said. “Even if it doesn’t feel right, or even if they do it right, they want to make sure it is done the right way, not just getting the result they wanted.”