Wolverines prepare for series against No. 20 Wisconsin

Senior defender Nolan De Jong will lead the unit against the challenge of Wisconsin's high-powered offense.

Senior defender Nolan De Jong will lead the unit against the challenge of Wisconsin's high-powered offense.
Jeremy Mitnick/Daily
Thursday, February 16, 2017 - 9:12pm

The last time the Michigan hockey team played on an Olympic-sized rink, it struggled defensively, allowing nine goals in two games to Minnesota.

Since then, the Wolverines’ defense has continued to be a trouble spot, giving up two goals or fewer in only one of six games since playing the Golden Gophers.

This weekend, Michigan will face another offensive-minded team on a larger sheet of ice when it takes on No. 20 Wisconsin.

The Badgers boast the seventh-best offense in the country and showed their ability to score goals in their first game against the Wolverines, exploding for seven goals.

Though the larger ice rink can sometimes pose a challenge for opposing defenses, Michigan knows what it has to improve upon to be ready for Wisconsin.

“I think the forecheck is going to be really important,” said senior defenseman Nolan De Jong. “Because the faster we can take away their time and space in the offensive zone, obviously the less we’ll have it in our zone.

“For the defense, kind of staying between the (faceoff) dots. You see these teams, they’ll try to spread you outside the dots and try to find that lane to the middle. Wisconsin’s a team that’s going to try to sneak guys behind you and try to score on breakaways and kind of quick, fast transitions.”

Offensively, the Wolverines seemed to be improving, but they struggled again last Saturday against Michigan State. Though senior forward Alex Kile remains sidelined with an injury, Michigan hopes to show its offensive potency on the larger ice.

One reason for optimism could be freshman forward Will Lockwood. His scoring has slowed down after a hot start to the season, but with more room to skate this weekend, the freshman’s speed and offensive ability could be on display. He was unable to make the trip to Minneapolis due to an injury of his own, so this will be the first time he has an opportunity to make an impact for Michigan with extra space on the ice.

According to Michigan coach Red Berenson, his team’s competitiveness and puck security will be key.

“We didn’t have all of our speed in the lineup (against Minnesota),” Berenson said. “This is a skater’s rink, but you still have got to compete. Wisconsin’s a skilled team, and they skate. They’re one of the better offensive teams in our league, especially on the power play.

“But we’ve got to take care of the puck. That’s one thing I thought we did poorly on Saturday at home. We got the puck, and then we’d turn it over, and then we’d be chasing it again. And in a rink like this, you’re going to be chasing all night if you don’t take care of the puck.”

In net, the Wolverines will turn to freshman goaltender Jack LaFontaine. After not playing much in the middle of the season, LaFontaine started Saturday against the Spartans and started strong before an injury forced him to leave the game early.

Michigan is heading to Madison in the midst of a rather rough stretch, losing five of its last eight games. But the Wolverines are still optimistic, according to De Jong.

“I think we’re pretty upbeat right now,” De Jong said. “I think we know we got a bit of a wakeup call last Saturday. That wasn’t an acceptable effort. But I think we had a really good practice out there today, and I think we’re excited to go and excited to get another game under our belt.”