Special teams tells the story for Michigan in series split

Sunday, October 21, 2018 - 8:02pm

Sophomore defenseman Griffin Luce scored his third career goal against Western Michigan.

Sophomore defenseman Griffin Luce scored his third career goal against Western Michigan. Buy this photo
Emma Richter/Daily

Griffin Luce doesn’t score many goals.

The No. 11 Michigan hockey team’s junior defenseman had just two goals in 62 games played entering Friday night’s matchup against No. 19 Western Michigan (3-2).  

But on the power play in the third period, Luce received the puck from redshirt sophomore forward Luke Morgan in the right circle and fired a shot that found twine. Goaltender Trevor Gorsuch never saw the puck — not until it was going over his right shoulder into the net.

“(I) liked our power play,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after Friday’s 6-5 victory. “(I) thought our power play obviously got us back in the game in the second period, got us the lead.”

The Broncos played a physical game, providing the Wolverines (1-2) with multiple power play opportunities. They were penalized eight times, including three times in the second period. Michigan converted on two of those chances, allowing the Wolverines to come back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game.

In total, Michigan scored on three of its seven power plays — a conversion percentage of 42.8 percent, which would rank first in the nation if the Wolverines’ pace continued for the full season.

But Saturday night, Michigan’s power play struggled to find that same success as it fell, 5-4, to Western Michigan.

The Wolverines lit the lamp on only one of their eleven chances, and that one goal came from a rarely-utilized power play unit of senior forward Brendan Warren, junior forward Jake Slaker, junior defenseman Luke Martin, freshman defenseman Jack Summers and Morgan. Morgan’s shot was blocked by goaltender Austin Cain and Warren was able to tip in the rebound for his first goal of the season.

“I think we almost had too many power plays tonight,” Pearson said. “You get out of sorts and you’re continuing to play your top guys. Our only power play goal came from a group that we really haven’t worked with, and they go out there and just keep it simple and they get one.”

Just like the power play, Michigan’s penalty kill had an up-and-down weekend. It was nearly perfect Friday, allowing just one goal on six chances for the Broncos.

On that one goal, Slaker and Martin let forward Ethen Frank slip behind them to stand just outside the right circle in the perfect spot to receive a pass across the ice from defenseman Corey Schueneman. Frank fired a wrist-shot that beat junior goaltender Hayden Lavigne and allowed Western Michigan to take the lead.

But the Wolverines’ penalty kill settled in after that, and the Broncos managed three shots on each of their three following power plays. Michigan’s penalty killers had five shorthanded shots on the night — the same number of power play shots they allowed Western Michigan.

In contrast, on Saturday, the Wolverines allowed the Broncos two goals on five opportunities, shooting themselves in the foot. Twice, a Michigan player was penalized while the Wolverines were already on the penalty kill, creating five-on-three chances for Western Michigan that it capitalized on.

“We can’t put ourselves five-on-three,” Pearson said. “Like I told the team, both penalties we took to put us on five-on-three were slashing. And it’s not like we were preventing a goal, it was just a lazy penalty.

“Unfortunately, to start the third period, we had some momentum going into the period. We gave up that five-on-three within two minutes of the third period. We just did not have a good start, we shot ourselves in the foot.”

With the pace and physicality of college hockey, special teams cannot be overlooked. An extra-man advantage opens up scoring opportunities that can make the difference between winning and losing. When both the power play and penalty kill succeed, a team has extra chances to recover from a deficit and pull itself back into contention.

But when special teams units struggle — like on Saturday, when Michigan scored on just one of eleven power play opportunities and allowed two goals while on the penalty kill — a win can become out of reach.

The Wolverines learned that the hard way this weekend.

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