The stout defensive effort displayed by the Michigan hockey team’s blueliners has been one of the most surprising aspects of the Wolverines’ ascent to their first CCHA title in three years.
Led by junior defensive stalwart Mark Mitera, Michigan went on a three-month, 20-game tear early in the season where it gave up more than two goals just once, in a 3-2 loss to Ohio State on Nov. 30.
But the unit has slipped slightly lately, giving up four or more goals three times since that streak ended on Jan 26.
“I think we need to get back to doing little things well,” Mitera said. “Make sure we’re backchecking hard, winning one-on-one battles and tying up loose guys in front. I think we’ve gotten away from that in the last couple weeks, so we need to make sure everyone is focused on their guy.”
The penalty-kill unit has been a particular sore spot. Michigan’s last regular-season opponent, Ferris State, came into the series converting just 16 percent of its power play chances on the season but scorched the Wolverines for five man-advantage goals – a 41-percent clip.
Although not normally known for their offensive prowess, the Bulldogs kept the Wolverines on thier heels with crisp passes in the Michigan zone, eventually finding open shots at goaltender Billy Sauer.
“For whatever reason, we’ve gotten a little hesitant on the PK,” assistant coach Billy Powers said. “We’re reacting instead of playing within the system. Now, we’re trying to encourage more movement, more anticipation, and that will get us a little bit more aggressive.”
Powers also mentioned the Wolverines’ decreased ability to clear the puck during penalty-kill situations as a reason for the recent struggles.
When Michigan can’t clear the puck from the zone, their opponents have more time to find offensive rhythm and open shots.
The recent penalty-killing woes could spell trouble for the Wolverines against Nebraska-Omaha in the quarterfinal round of the CCHA Tournament this weekend. The Mavericks boast the best power-play unit in the conference (almost 25 percent) and notched three power-play goals in two games against Michigan earlier this season.
Instead of spending all its time preparing for Nebraska-Omaha, the Wolverines have taken an inverted approach to practicing the penalty kill, focusing more on its own problems than on the Mavericks’ strengths.
“We haven’t focused on Nebraska’s power play, because we’ve kind of gotten away from some of the little things we were doing at the beginning of the year,” Powers said. “Last week, we took advantage of that time, and we spent some time on our system, just kind of fine tuning our system.”
During the last two practices before Friday night’s game, Michigan will apply its penalty-kill practice to Nebraska-Omaha’s multifaceted gameplan. Powers admits that shutting it down will be a tall task.
The Mavericks have two highly skilled power-play units, so the Wolverine penalty killers won’t be able to focus on just one set of players. They don’t have a go-to play, instead employing several different puck rotations to get shots to the net.
“I think if we can focus on getting our PK and our system fined tuned, we can then approach what UNO’s doing and hopefully have more success than we’ve had lately,” Powers said.