By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 22, 2012
SOUTH BEND — Taking six penalties in the first period would have resulted in a disaster for the No. 10 Michigan hockey team earlier in the year. The penalty-kill unit didn’t have enough depth to withstand that many minutes that early on — especially if two of those penalties were taken by senior defenseman Greg Pateryn.
But after the reinstatement of sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill three weeks ago, the penalty-kill unit has been nothing short of a strong suit. The Wolverines have allowed only one power-play goal in the six games since Merrill returned to the team.
“It’s huge to have (Merrill) back,” said senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick. “He gives everyone else confidence. When he gets the puck, you know he is going to get it out.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson said earlier in the week that one of the main focuses for the weekend was going to be cutting down on penalties.
Friday night against Notre Dame — with Michigan spending more than half of the first period in the penalty box — was not what Berenson had in mind. But in a physical, hard-fought game, Michigan rolled with the punches and fought off an opening frame, something that it wouldn’t have been able to do a month or two ago.
The difference between a couple months ago and last weekend was Merrill, who was called the best defenseman in the country by Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki after the Frozen Diamond Faceoff.
It’s hard not to notice Merrill when he is on the ice — a 6-foot-3 specimen who covers ground quicker than anyone else on the team. He is also one of Michigan’s smartest players, seeing as he is yet to take a penalty.
There is plenty of other talent on the penalty-kill unit, but with Merrill, it went from average to standout almost overnight.
LOOKING FOR A SPARK: Junior forward Lindsay Sparks has been up and down more than any Wolverine this season. He led the team in goals in October — but that’s also the only month in which he scored. More recently, he has been a healthy scratch, last playing on Dec. 9 against Michigan State.
Against Notre Dame on Saturday, Berenson decided to mix it up, putting Sparks in the lineup for freshman Andrew Sinelli.
Michigan also made a change on defense, playing freshman Brennan Serville in place of freshman Mike Chiasson.
“When your team loses a game, you start looking around,” said Berenson. “I think Lindsay deserved a chance to play in a game, and we will evaluate him as well as Serville.”
The changes came with mixed results — Sparks picked up a 10-minute misconduct for firing a puck at a Notre Dame player after the whistle, a move that might take the cake for the dumbest plays of the year, and likely won't help in his chase for ice time.
HOLY HUNWICK: Hunwick has been on a tear in 2012, including a career-high 46 saves against Ohio State on Jan. 13. The senior goaltender has blocked 163 out of the last 170 shots sent his way over his last five games, good for a .970 save percentage.
For context, Union goaltender Troy Grosenick currently leads the country with a .937 save percentage.
Against Notre Dame this weekend, Hunwick allowed just three goals on 70 shots — Michigan’s MVP at it again on a weekend that Notre Dame was giving him some extra attention.
“All the credit goes to him,” said freshman forward Alex Guptill on Saturday. “He is getting run at and making saves. We don’t win that game tonight without Hunwick.”