There are few weak spots on the Michigan hockey team. Its No. 3 ranking and 6-2-0 record are indicative of a well-balanced roster. But, its two losses are enough to prove that, as a matter of fact, it does have some flaws. The Wolverines are most vulnerable when they allow odd-man rushes, the blame falling not only on their defensemen, but on their forwards too.
Michigan has a host of talented offensive defensemen, including senior Nick Blankenburg, sophomore Owen Power and freshman Luke Hughes. Their skill allows them to push in transition and join in on the attack. When successful, they offer a huge boost to the Wolverines. On the season, Power leads the Michigan blueliners with two goals and eight points, while Hughes is not far behind with two goals and seven points. Blankenburg, the team’s speedy captain, has already recorded three goals and four points this year.
There is no denying that this offensive-minded style of play has been productive for the Wolverines. But, it has also been detrimental in unsettled situations when they’ve had to get back on defense quickly.
“If the weak side (defenseman) is gonna jump we have to be more aware of that,” fifth-year forward Michael Pastujov said. “As soon as (opponents) see us jumping they’re gonna be jumping the other way. The forwards just gotta be aware of the situation. …It’s something we’re working on in practice, trying to limit those odd-man rushes.”
Friday night versus Wisconsin, Michigan sacrificed several breakaways following defensive breakdowns. Oftentimes, the Badgers would start in their own zone, take advantage of the overly-aggressive Wolverine defenders and play a pass ahead for a cutting forward. Whether it was a neutral zone turnover or a defenseman who pinched too much in the offensive zone, Wisconsin was able to expose Michigan’s lack of discipline.
The team does not want to discourage its defensemen from initiating scoring chances, but communication with forwards is imperative for recoveries and preventing sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo from facing opponents alone.
“We have some defensemen that are really good activating and joining the rush offensively,” assistant coach Bill Muckalt said. “With that, a lot of times we’re asking a forward to fill into that position.”
Even more frustrating for the Wolverines is how solid they’ve played in their own defensive zone. Opponents have struggled to produce even-strength goals and to maintain possession. Considering how comfortable they look in their own zone, it’s crucial for Michigan to address its issues in transition.
“Our (defensive) zone coverage has been fantastic,” Muckalt said. “Because we’ve been sustaining a lot of (offensive) zone time and pressure when there is a breakdown, we just have to be aware whether it’s a defensive man holding the line or (a forward) as a backtrack.”
On the other side of the ice, Michigan struggles to backcheck. The team is extremely effective while forechecking, so it’s a bit surprising that its forwards have not replicated this effort getting back on defense. This issue resonates not just in its forwards but throughout the team.
“One thing we harp on a lot is coming back for a purpose, not just coming back to come back,” junior defenseman Jack Summers said. “If you’re coming back, you have to get their stick. You can’t just stand there. … Those loose pucks can’t get put in.”
The Badgers may have found a blueprint that other Big Ten teams will try to replicate against the Wolverines: pack the defensive zone and take advantage of the overly-aggressive Michigan defensemen. This upcoming series versus Michigan State will show fans if Michigan can fix its mistakes, or if there are more concerns for the future.