During the Michigan hockey team’s struggles this year, there always seemed to be a laundry list of things that needed improvement — whether it was defensive-zone coverage, goaltending, neutral-zone play or special teams.
The combination of these different aspects typically resulted in the Wolverines allowing easy goals. Sometimes a man would be left open in front of the net for a one-time shot that was on a near-empty net. Other times, there would be a miscommunication between the forwards and the defensemen, resulting in an odd-man rush and another easy goal.
Throughout the season, Michigan coach Red Berenson has continually stressed that until the team’s goals allowed per game are lowered, the Wolverines won’t be where they want to be. Considering how poor the defense was for most of the season — a little more than a month ago, the Wolverines ranked second to last in the entire NCAA in goals allowed per game — Berenson saw only room for improvement.
After last weekend’s sweep of Northern Michigan, Michigan is currently riding a six-game winning streak and has vastly improved on defense. The Wolverines have allowed one goal per game while scoring three and a half on average in the past two weeks. To say the defensive effort has been better wouldn’t be doing it justice — Michigan looks like a completely different team behind its blue line.
“(The difference) is just an attitude,” Berenson said. “A combination of better penalty killing, better goalkeeping and better defensive awareness and defensive responsibility. I’m still not happy with the goals that we gave up this weekend.”
The inconsistent goaltending has frequently contributed to the struggles. Michigan has alternated freshmen Steve Racine and Jared Rutledge, as well as junior Adam Janecyk, between the pipes all season because none of them earned the job outright. But ever since the Ohio State series that began on Feb. 22 — the start of the Wolverines’ current six-game winning streak — Racine has been a brick wall behind the net.
Last season, then-senior Shawn Hunwick was a goalie who was consistent night in and night out and also had his teammates’ trust to bail them out if need be. Though Racine hasn’t become that much of a sure thing, Berenson does believe that his performances in the past three weeks have given the team a confidence boost in its young netminder.
“I think the defensemen now aren’t as worried about the goalie,” he said. “They’re now worried about playing good defense. There’s no question that if you have a lack of trust in your goalie, then your team won’t be the same.”
And if the sweep of the Wildcats wasn’t a perfect defensive effort, it was close. The defense didn’t just perform at a high level and keep Northern Michigan from getting any easy chances, but it also went on the offensive.
During Friday night’s 3-2 victory, junior defenseman Jon Merrill scored just his second goal of the year. A night later, junior Mac Bennett and freshman Jacob Trouba both notched goals in Michigan’s 6-2 victory. Add assists from Trouba and sophomore Mike Szuma, and that’s a defensive unit that finished a series sweep with five points.
“That usually means your team is playing well when you’re getting offense from your defense,” Berenson said.
Whether Berenson is finally happy with the defense’s overall performance or the unit is finally living up the preseason hype, the results speak for themselves. For a team that has allowed more than three goals per game for the entirety of the season — Michigan’s 3.50 goals per game still rank last in the CCHA — six goals allowed in the past four games is impressive.
“It’s just everybody buying in,” said senior defenseman Lee Moffie about the recent success. “(The defense) has steadily been getting better, even in the past month of the season, and now that the season is coming together, the blocked shots and the extra will to make sure the puck is getting out helps us a lot.”