After a weekend that saw the No. 12 Michigan hockey team give up eight goals and escape with just two points — a shootout victory on Friday night — against No. 16 Northern Michigan, there was little to be pleased about, especially defensively.
But junior defenseman Mac Bennett’s performance on the weekend was nothing to be scoffed at. Bennett tallied a goal and an assist in each of the games in Marquette.
His four-point weekend and defensive performance were enough to earn him the title of CCHA Gladiator Defenseman of the Week for the first time in his career.
Despite his impressive performance, the defensive corps struggled to control the slot around the crease and suffered too many missed assignments, ultimately leading to a flurry of easy, point-blank Wildcat goals. Michigan coach Red Berenson has continuously said the Wolverines’ struggles this past weekend were attributed to problems in the “defensive-zone coverage.” Bennett argeed.
“I think we need to take pride in D-zone coverage,” he said. “It’s just little things. It’s forwards picking up their points or defensemen having better sticks in the D-zone. I think if we can build off the D-zone our offensive firepower will just come.”
One area where the offensive firepower hasn’t been a problem is Bennett’s offensive production this season. His four-point performance against Northern Michigan moved his season totals to three goals and six assists — nine points total. Bennett leads all CCHA defenseman in points and is fifth overall in the conference. Only senior forward A.J. Treais has more points than Bennett on the team.
Offensive success isn’t an unexpected result from Bennett, though. The Narragansett, R.I. native finished with four goals and 17 assists for a total of 21 points last season. But the impetus behind Bennett’s high numbers so far might be the diminished defensive corps.
Senior defenseman Jon Merrill — a pre-season all-CCHA team selection — was injured during Michigan’s preseason exhibition against Windsor and has yet to see the ice. There have also been other injuries and issues — freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba missed Saturday’s game because of a suspension for a hit he had Friday night and sophomore defenseman Brennan Serville missed the entire weekend with a “facial concussion” — which have resulted in Bennett and senior defenseman Lee Moffie filling in for holes in the defensive zone.
“He’s a rushing defenseman,” Berenson said. “(He) skates really well and carries the puck really well. The way the game is played now, if you’re playing hard in the other team’s zone, sooner or later the puck comes back to the point and they’ve got to get it through. Mac is one of those guys that’s finding a way to get it through.”
Berenson also noted that Bennett’s wrist shot and not “big slapshots,” has been important for him to get the puck to the net.
Along with increased offensive productivity, Bennett has also found himself in a different role. The absence of Merrill, a unit boasting just one senior in Moffie and a plethora of young defensemen has given Bennett a new-found leadership position.
“I’m more of a mentor now than I was learning as a younger player,” Bennett said. “I think what I can try to do is if I can bring consistency night in and night out, hopefully guys like Trouba, or (sophomore defenseman Mike) Szuma or someone like that can kind of pick up from it.”
Michigan has boasted the highest-scoring offensive attack this season in the CCHA. But it also comes out of the weekend in Marquette with the conference’s second-worst goals against average. Bennett knows the defensive corps will need to pull it together and perform at a higher level if the Wolverines hope to keep games from becoming high-scoring contests.
He also knows that accolades such as defenseman of the week are pointless if it comes after Michigan had a losing weekend.
“It’s an honor but the big thing is that we just lost four points up at Northern,” he said. “It’s kind of out of my mind.”