Last weekend the Michigan hockey team looked strong — even dominant at times — when playing five-on-five. It scored nine even-strength goals last weekend alone, in a series coach Red Berenson called “the best” thus far in the season.
It has found success competing five-on-five all season, as the offense has continuously created scoring chances despite what the scoreboard often suggests.
But the Wolverines’ subpar 5-6-0 record is a representation of several team weaknesses, with the exception of the offense at even strength. In its two games against Penn State, the poor play of Michigan’s special teams, which has been unpredictable at best, continued to plague the team.
“We needed that,” Berenson said Saturday. “You shouldn’t have to score eight goals every night to win, and we didn’t, but the point is, I think our team still hasn’t played our best game.”
Moving forward, the difference between a close win and a one-goal loss could be special teams.
The Wolverines have scored just five power-play goals in 43 chances this season, good for a .116 conversion percentage. The unit has surrendered two shorthanded goals in front of sophomore goaltender Zach Nagelvoort.
So when senior forward Travis Lynch forced a Penn State turnover at center ice and found junior forward Andrew Copp, who broke out and wristed a shot past Nittany Lions goaltender Eamon McAdam — scoring the Wolverines’ first shorthanded goal of the season — it came as a welcome surprise.
But that was the only bright spot for special teams on the weekend.
Penn State’s only goal Saturday came on the power play. The Nittany Lions scored on one of their two man-up opportunities the night before, when they embarrassed the Wolverines at Yost Ice Arena with three goals in three minutes.
By contrast, none of Michigan’s 11 goals was earned on the power play. Instead, the Wolverines went 0-for-9 and managed just 17 shots over the weekend, fewer than two per opportunity. And when they do shoot, they find the net less than 7 percent of the time for the season.
Still, the Wolverines are confident it won’t be long before the power play finds its slots. After all, sophomore forward JT Compher notched two goals Saturday after starting the season with an 11-game scoring drought.
“Sooner or later you’ve got to convert on some of those chances,” Berenson said.
Added Copp: “Sometimes it just clicks, sometimes it doesn’t. But we gotta be able to have (special teams) win in the goals-against column every night.”
On the defensive side, Michigan has just as much work to do with the penalty kill. Though its kill percentage stands at a respectable .880, the Wolverines have allowed four more penalty-kill goals (nine) than they’ve scored with an extra man.
In net, Nagelvoort quietly allowed just four goals in two games, saving 66 shots on the weekend. His 41-save performance on Saturday wasn’t necessary, but it could have been.
Both Nagelvoort and junior Steve Racine have struggled when put in situations where they need to stand on their head to secure a win. Nagelvoort allows an average of 3.00 goals per game. And, save for two eight-goal performances this season, Michigan scores just 2.66 times per contest — all the more reason to prioritize the penalty kill and the defense as a whole.
“Consistency would be No. 1 (priority),” Copp said Saturday. “An 8-1 win and then a close loss, you know, we’re capable of winning both games, we want to have that. We still need to work on our special teams. We let up a PK goal and didn’t convert on any of our power plays, which isn’t good enough.
“Overall, we’re getting better. And that’s all there is to it.”