Michigan coach Red Berenson has said all season that his team has a “laundry list” of areas where it needs to improve. But one facet of the game has given the Wolverines fits all season: faceoffs.
Winning just 48 percent of its draws, No. 2 Michigan is the only team in the USCHO.com poll’s top five with a faceoff winning percentage below .500.
While draws weren’t the primary reason the Wolverines just went through their worst series of the season last weekend against Michigan State, the coaching staff is making improvement in the circle a priority.
“It’s not something you can just say, ‘Ok, we have to be better on faceoffs,’ ” Berenson said. “You work on it, try to get better and hopefully we will.”
The players do a lot of one-on-one work with each other after practice, but it’s difficult to simulate game situation faceoffs without a full five-on-five. While there’s just one person taking each faceoff, it’s often one of the other four players on the ice who ends up securing the puck to gain possession.
Since each game features so many faceoffs – usually at least 60 – it’s easy to write each one off. But faceoffs and puck possession are critical on special teams – an area where Michigan struggled mightily against Michigan State last weekend.
“On the power play, when we needed a goal in the Michigan State game (Friday), we couldn’t win a draw in their zone and they got it out right away,” senior Chad Kolarik said. “On the penalty kill, if we can win it in our zone, we might have won that game Saturday night with those two power-play goals they had.”
Inexperience is one of the reasons Michigan is struggling in the circle.
Senior captain Kevin Porter had never played center before this season, and taking faceoffs is a skill he’s had to learn along the way.
Freshmen Matt Rust and Louie Caporusso are centering Michigan’s second and third lines. Both are still adjusting to the strength, quickness and instinct needed to consistently win draws at the college level.
“You come into college and you’re taking faceoffs against guys that have been doing it for a while at this level,” associate head coach Mel Pearson said.
In response to its faceoff shortcomings, the coaching staff has started to look beyond the regular centermen to find success.
Kolarik recently started taking more draws in the offensive zone when the top line is on the ice. Freshman Carl Hagelin, who played center while Caporusso was injured in November and December, has also been taking faceoffs.
“We’re just trying anybody we can that we think can do a good job and get that puck possession,” Pearson said.
With Michigan’s biggest games of the regular season ahead, against Miami (Ohio) and Michigan State, faceoffs will become even more important. In one-goal games, the kind that are all too common come playoff time, the ability to control the puck off faceoffs in all zones will be critical.
So when the regular season ends on March 1, 48 percent won’t be good enough.