For 12 games, the Michigan hockey team’s defensive corps was downright offensive in the opposing zone — but not in the way the Wolverines had hoped for at the beginning of the season.
Michigan fell below .500. The defense had just two goals and was averaging under two points a game.
For one of the most offensively talented defensive units Michigan coach Red Berenson has had in years, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. The defense was expected to fill the void left from the lack of a true playmaker at forward.
But after a sweep of Minnesota and No. 15 Wisconsin in the College Hockey Showcase, the defense and the rest of the Wolverines are finally living up to expectations.
This weekend, the blue liners found the score sheet seven times, with one goal and six assists. The goal came during Friday’s game on the power play, when sophomore Brandon Burlon took a pass at the top of the left circle and rifled a slap shot that beat Gopher goalie Alex Kangas on the blocker side.
“It’s good for our team,” Berenson said. “We’re fighting to score goals and all the pressure is on our forwards. When the ‘D’ can step in and help generate offense with a good play or a good shot, that’s huge.”
The defensive unit as a whole elevated its game — five of the seven members recorded points. The only players not to pad their stats were pure defender Tristin Llewellyn and senior Chris Summers, who came in tied for the defenseman team lead in points.
The difference for the defense this weekend had much to do with the emergence of Michigan’s forwards. The forwards have had trouble scoring this season, but they scored eight of the team’s nine goals in almost every way imaginable, from breakaways to putting it in off of a defenseman’s skate.
“I think it’s just having more trust in the forwards,” Summers said. “The forwards were coming back a lot more this weekend, a lot more with a purpose, and I think that makes a difference. We’re allowed to step up, make some plays, gain a little bit of confidence on the blue line. That could be another turning point — that could be a new aspect to our team.”
The team effort clearly had a leader on the weekend — senior Steve Kampfer. After fracturing his skull in an off-ice incident early last season, Kampfer was relegated to watching his Wolverines lose to Wisconsin in the last year’s Showcase.
This year, he made his presence felt early. On the power play, Kampfer hit junior Carl Hagelin in the slot and Hagelin found junior Matt Rust walking out of the corner for the first goal of the game. The assist was one of Kampfer’s three on the weekend as he doubled his output from the season’s first 12 games.
Kampfer didn’t lose sight of his primary responsibilities, either. He finished the weekend with a plus-four rating and played a prominent role late in Saturday’s third period with Michigan up 2-1. After laying a huge hit on a Wisconsin forward, he made a diving clear to negate the Wisconsin attack.
“We have to play solid defensively first,” Kampfer said. “As soon as we get our defensive game under us, I think that’s when the offense starts kicking in. I thought that happened this weekend.”
If the Wolverines (3-5-0 CCHA, 7-7-0 overall) want to move up from 11th in the conference, they will need to carry this weekend’s momentum into CCHA play. For success to continue, the defense will need to be “offensive” in the truest sense of the word.