Michigan junior defenseman Steve Kampfer knows he’s going to get some bruises tonight.
“(St. Lawrence) is a physical team,” Kampfer said about tonight’s opponent. “We’ve been practicing hitting all week. Obviously, when we go back for a puck, we understand we’re going to get hit. We’ve got to make the play.”
The Wolverine defensive corps has one major factor on its side — its size. Six of the eight defensemen are at least six feet tall, and all but one weigh in at more than 190 pounds.
“Gaining a couple extra pounds, being a lot stronger on the puck and knowing where to be on the ice (helps our) guys out,” Kampfer said.
Familiarity helps, too.
With all blueliners returning to the team this year, the Wolverines hoped each and every player would show marked improvement. As the regular season opens tonight, the defense seems poised to reach a higher level this year.
Last year, the squad allowed an average of 2.07 goals per game. Last weekend in exhibition play, the defense gave up just one goal in each game — both of them allowed in the third period when Michigan had full control of the game.
“As a core group and as a whole, we’re very encouraged by the way our ‘D’ looks, how they’re practicing, how they looked in exhibition,” Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers said. “I know we didn’t play the Detroit Red Wings, but it was game competition and we kept the puck out of the zone, moved it out quickly and didn’t give up a lot of opportunities.”
With the loss of last year’s top line, the highest-scoring trio in the nation, the defense will have to shut down opponents. Though the defensemen say they don’t feel added pressure because offensive production might be lower, they acknowledged their role has changed.
“We’re going into the season thinking we have to produce a little more,” sophomore defenseman Chad Langlais said. “We’ve talked a little bit about as a defensive corps, trying to jump up and be a little more offensive.”
None of the three freshmen defensemen recorded a goal last year. Langlais thinks that should change.
Powers agreed that the defensive role has shifted, and he thinks that makes it more important than before.
“We’re still evolving as an offense, so we have to be perfect as a defense,” Powers said.
Over the past few weeks, including exhibition play, the Michigan coaching staff has mixed up its defensive pairings, trying to incorporate freshmen and find the best on-ice chemistry.
Sophomore Scooter Vaughan and senior captain Mark Mitera proved to be an effective pair last season, and will likely play as the top duo tonight. Kampfer and Langlais have a great rapport after playing together often last year, too. But throw in two physical freshmen, Brandon Burlon and Greg Pateryn, and move junior Chris Summers to forward, and the mix-and-match pairing begins again.
“We’re all used to everyone now,” Kampfer said. “You play with everyone. You learn to do this and that. You read the tendencies of everyone. That’s a big help going into games.”
Heading into this weekend’s series against the Saints at Yost Ice Arena, the Michigan defense knows it will play a crucial role in the tough, physical contests.
“This’ll be a war,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said about the St. Lawrence series. “They play hard-nose, physical, close-checking hockey. Our players are going to have to battle.”