Michigan thriving in crunch time

Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - 8:14pm

The Michigan hockey team has shown an ability to win close games early this season.

The Michigan hockey team has shown an ability to win close games early this season. Buy this photo
Claire Abdo/Daily

The Michigan hockey team has shown an ability to win close games early this season.

The Michigan hockey team has shown an ability to win close games early this season. Buy this photo
Claire Abdo/Daily

 

Two weeks ago, it was Sam Piazza with four minutes left. Friday night, it was Will Lockwood with a minute to go. Saturday night, it was Cutler Martin taking advantage on the power play.

Those players stepped up when a battered and struggling Michigan hockey team needed their assistance. As the 11th-ranked Wolverines head to the East Coast this weekend, they are hoping to avoid having the need for another lucky goal.

“(These goals are) luck,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We’re not finishing games the way we need to finish.

“Getting a good start has been part of our history at Michigan. We’ve had the lead going into most of third periods (this season), maybe just about every one.”

In their first game of the season, the Wolverines blew a 3-2 lead late in the third period and allowed Union to walk away with a come-from-behind victory, setting the tone for a recent stretch in which many games have been decided by one goal.

Junior forward Dexter Dancs notices the intensity shift in the arena atmosphere from the first to the third period. For him and his fellow Wolverines, though, they strive for the same approach throughout all three periods. Dancs will only occasionally look up at the scoreboard during games, but when he does, he seems to ignore it. He has a game to win, a backcheck to induce and a puck to control.

“You’re just playing and then they’re times when you’re in a tight game and it’s 15 minutes left in the game, and then you look up, and there’s three minutes left in the game and it’s still tight,” Dancs said.

“If it comes down to crunch time with five minutes left in the game … then yeah, it starts to get intense and really fun.”

For freshman goaltender Hayden Lavigne, who allowed a game-tying goal Friday night before Lockwood bailed him out with a minute left, these late-third-period scores alter his approach. Rather than thinking of the final outcome for these few minutes, Lavigne assesses the opponent's opportunities shot by shot. And in a season in which the Wolverines have struggled to clear the puck out of their own zone, Lavigne has faced his share of chances.

To prepare himself for these intense moments, Lavigne has developed techniques to relax himself in heightened moments when a single mishap could lead to a loss.

“You have to shake it off right away, because then the last three minutes of the game become that more important,” Lavigne said. “Instead of it being a tying goal, it becomes a losing goal. My key thing is just breathing deep. (It) calms down my whole body and my mind at the same time.”

Lavigne takes advantage of late-game stoppages to speak to his blueliners. They speak about strategy in their own zone and share tips on how to combat the opposition’s top scorers. These conversations are pivotal, because the Wolverines have had to adapt a more defensive-minded approach after the departure of nearly two-thirds of its goals to graduation or the NHL. Even Berenson acknowledged his team lacks depth in certain areas this season.

While the goaltending has kept Michigan close late in games, Berenson believes the Wolverines must improve their shots against.

“We’ve been outshot in every game, particularly in the third period when we’ve had the lead,” Berenson said. “And the third period was one of our best periods last year.”

This weekend, Michigan plays Vermont, the seventh-ranked scoring team that averages four goals per game. Its most prolific period: the third, in which it has netted eight goals.

Should the Catamounts score a goal in the third period, Dancs might even enjoy the intense atmosphere, and Lavigne might resort to his breathing exercises.

Maybe, the Wolverines will need a late goal. They’ve shown they can get one.