The high-powered Michigan hockey team’s offense often draws much of the opposing team’s attention. Big-name players like sophomore forwards Kent Johnson, Matty Beniers and Brendan Brisson have put up video game numbers throughout the season.
Tonight was not about the offense, though. It was about the Wolverines’ relentless penalty killers.
Entering the game, Michigan had killed off 16 straight penalties. Whether or not they knew this is unknown, but they certainly seemed adamant on maintaining that streak. Through two periods, Michigan had built a three-goal lead and was in cruise control. But, none of that would’ve been possible without the efforts of their special teams.
“(Associate head) coach (Bill) Muckalt did a great job with them,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We sort of challenge certain guys to take ownership, with (senior forward Garrett) Van Wyhe, (senior forward Nolan) Moyle, obviously (junior forward) Johnny Beecher. We weren’t there in the first half. But hopefully, as we keep going here we can scratch and claw and get into that top 10 (of penalty-killing percentage).”
Around midway through the first period, Johnson backchecked hard and tried to prevent a cutting forward from driving to the net. He caught up with his opponent, but was overly aggressive in his pursuit and drew a minor penalty for interference.
The penalty killers barely allowed the power play to set up during this first attempt.
With 7:32 left in the period, Moyle was charged with a game misconduct for boarding. The Wolverines faced a major penalty and their one-goal lead was in danger. This time, the Nittany Lions’ power play was far more active. Not only did they move the puck in the offensive zone, but they challenged sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo on several occasions.
None of those chances were more dangerous than when Penn State possessed a loose puck around the crease. With a cutter on the backdoor, the Nittany Lions seemed poised to even the game.
Owen Power had other ideas. The star sophomore defenseman came flying in and slid to help Portillo’s back post. He used his stick and body positioning to interrupt the pass, determined to preserve the lead.
Michigan survived the major penalty and sparked the rest of the team.
“I think killing any penalty is going to give you a lot of momentum,” Van Wyhe said. “Killing that off and getting a few good chances out of it… It kind of just rallies the guys. It gives us the energy and gives the confidence that even a man down we can play with them.”
Not only did Michigan shut down the Penn State power play, but it began to generate its own scoring looks despite being shorthanded. When senior defenseman Jack Summers was called for tripping, the Wolverines sent out sophomore Thomas Bordeleau and Van Wyhe as their penalty-killing forwards. The pair are physical, skate hard and bring a good balance to both ends of the ice, as two of the best two-way players on the team.
Early in the second period, their odd-man rush nearly resulted in a shorthanded goal Bordeleau’s spin-o-rama pass wouldn’t go, but the play demonstrated Michigan’s confidence even when down a man.
“I think that’s because of how hard they work,” freshman defenseman Luke Hughes said. “They do a great job (penalty killing), they’re huge leaders for us… It brings a lot of confidence.”
This team doesn’t shy away from offensive chances just because they’re on the penalty kill. In fact, when Johnson and Beniers are out there, opposing power play units have to be cautious of their transition speed. It’s a testament to this team’s hustle and skill that no matter the circumstances, they’re a threat to score.
Down by one with a minute left, the Nittany Lions emptied their net. Their last effort was a six on five, but much like their five on four power plays, they came up empty. Beniers was excellent at the faceoff dot down the stretch and prevented Penn State from setting up its offense.
The Wolverines are a physical and aggressive team and sometimes they go overboard, resulting in unwarranted penalties. But, this group has gone 20 straight penalties unblemished. If teams can’t capitalize while up a man, it will be difficult to consistently put shots past Portillo and this defense.
“I think we just work harder,” Van Wyhe added. “I think we just outwork their power play, I think that’s one of the staples of our penalty kill.”