DETROIT — Midway through the first period of the Michigan hockey team’s game against Michigan State on Saturday afternoon, junior forward Derek DeBlois poked the puck away from a Spartan in the neutral zone.
Skating towards the goal on a breakaway, DeBlois closed his eyes, then sniped the puck over Michigan State goaltender Jake Hildebrand’s left shoulder — a shot so powerful that the water bottle attached to the goal was ejected out of its fastenings and fell to the ice.
A forceful shot and an impressive play to be sure, but even more so considering that the Wolverines pulled it off shorthanded. It was just that kind of series for DeBlois and Michigan’s special-teams unit — everything seemed to be clicking perfectly en route to the Wolverines’ weekend sweep of the Spartans.
Out of Michigan’s eight goals over the weekend, two were power-play tallies and one was shorthanded. The duo of DeBlois and freshman forward Boo Nieves — who had combined for a total of seven goals before this weekend — tallied six against Michigan State.
For the Wolverines, whose special teams have been a work in progress since October, this weekend signified some pretty big strides.
“We took advantage of loose pucks,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson on Friday. “There were a couple of loose pucks or turnovers and all of a sudden, it was in the net. It was just good, instinctive hockey plays.”
The Wolverines’ power play, though mildly effective, hasn’t been close to the production levels that Berenson would like. This weekend, though, the unit finally started to play to its potential, with DeBlois and Nieves at the center of it all.
DeBlois’ goal off a one-timer in the second period of Friday’s 3-2 win over the Spartans came at even strength, though he scored it just seconds after the Wolverines’ power play ended. Nieves found twine with another one-timer, but this time, Michigan was still on the man advantage.
Hildebrand never even had a chance to register that the shots were coming. And according to Berenson, the Wolverines need more of these one-timers going forward to keep blind sighting the opposition.
“(The goal is) not something that was planned, it just is,” Berenson said. “We got pucks on the net quick and surprised the goalie. We got away quick, and they went in.”
But for all of the power play’s improvements, it was the penalty kill that stole the show this weekend. On Friday, the unit came through in the clutch when, with three minutes left in the game and Michigan only up by one, senior defenseman Lee Moffie went to the box for interference.
The Wolverines have been notorious for giving up goals late in the third period, and this penalty couldn’t have come at a worse time. On this occasion, though, Michigan State didn’t even register a shot on goal.
DeBlois’ shorthanded goal was the cherry on top of the unit’s stellar performance that held the Spartans to a weekend total of just eight shots on the man advantage. But his weekend accolades didn’t stop there — with 17 seconds remaining in Saturday’s contest, his second-period goal gave Michigan an all-important two-goal lead going into the final frame.
“It was huge,” DeBlois said of the goal. “They kind of had a little momentum there. Any goal at the end of the period kind of deflates a team, and it came at a good time.”
DeBlois’ play over the weekend hardly came as a surprise to anyone, least of Berenson.
“I think he’s just being Derek,” Berenson said. “He had another hard-nosed, hard-working weekend and he got rewarded. … He’s just in the right place at the time.”