As the saying goes, “offense may win games, but defense wins championships.”
If the Michigan hockey team plans on defending its CCHA Championship and eventually win the NCAA Championship, the defense needs to be solid.
The fact that this is the first time in three years that the Wolverines have a newcomer between the pipes means the defense has to be that much better than last season. They need to avoid letting the opposing team pile up high shot totals while freshman goaltender Billy Sauer gets comfortable.
Although this season is still very young, Michigan’s defense appears to be getting the job done. Sauer faced just 49 shots in this weekend’s two games against Quinnipiac. The defense was able to block numerous shots before they reached Sauer.
This weekend’s games also made it obvious that the top defensive pairing of junior alternate captain Matt Hunwick and freshman phenom Jack Johnson will more than adequately fill the role of offensive defensemen.
Hunwick had six points (three goals, three assists), including a hat trick in Saturday’s game, while Johnson collected four points (one goal, three assists).
But not all defensive pairings are like Hunwick and Johnson. The Wolverines have another pairing between a junior and a freshman. Junior David Rohlfs and freshman Mark Mitera are defensemen in a completely different mold than the counterparts in the team’s top defensive pairing.
Rohlfs and Mitera are more like the traditional defensive pairing that hockey fans are used to seeing. They focus more on shutting down opposing lines, rather than their own offensive proficiency.
“They are strong in the corners and in our own zone,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “They get the puck out of their zone pretty well. They’ve been very responsible defensively.”
Rohlfs and Mitera are both very imposing figures out on the ice. Each stands at 6-foot-3 while weighing 235 and 210 pounds, respectively. They try to make up for their lack of speed with the size advantage they usually have.
“We’re two big guys out there, so we try to add a physical aspect to the team,” Rohlfs said. “We try to intimidate (the other team) so that they don’t want to go into the corners. And when the puck is in the corners, we get it right out to our forwards.”
Mitera has been playing particularly well so far. In Friday’s 3-1 win over Quinnipiac, Michigan (2-0) was on the power play but lost the puck at center ice. This left the Bobcats with a breakaway chance on Sauer. Mitera raced down the ice after the puck. Using his 6-foot-3 frame, he dove with his stick outstretched and knocked the puck from the Quinnipiac player’s possession.
“He’s a good player, and he’s smart,” Rohlfs said. “It’s good to have him back there with me. He passes well, he skates well, and he’s always in position.”
Even though Rohlfs and Mitera had an impressive weekend against Quinnipiac while playing together, they know that their relationship on the ice is still a work in progress.
“We’ve been working after practice on our passing, as well as getting to know each other’s tendencies,” Rohlfs said. “The better we get acquainted with each other, the better we can be on the ice.”
Mitera and Rohlfs appear to have accepted their roles within the team. Both know that they can leave the offense to other people because defense is where the team needs them most.
“I pride myself on strong defensive play,” Mitera said. “I chip in a little offensively when the time comes, but I pride myself on just good strong defense.”
Rohlfs and Mitera face a stiff test this Friday when they go up against a talented No. 3 Boston College team. For the 11 freshmen on the team, it will be the first big-time college hockey atmosphere they will have experienced. Solid play by the defense will be essential if No. 8 Michigan hopes to pull of the upset.
Notes: Yesterday former Michigan captain Eric Nystrom was called up to the Calgary Flames from the Omaha Ak-Sar Knights of the AHL. Nystrom appeared in seven preseason games for the Flames before being assigned to the Knights to start the season.