The Michigan hockey team has been known as a training ground for elite offensive talent. And when the Wolverines win, it’s hard to argue that point.
But in the eyes of the coaching staff and players, Michigan no longer craves that label — it wants to be known for boasting a top-level defense and churning out two-way players.
“Most people in the hockey world would talk about our offense, our speed and our skill,” Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson said Monday. “I think sometimes our defense gets overlooked, even though the coaches in the program preach that we want to be the best defensive team in our league — or the country — every year.”
And the Wolverines (20-7-1-0 CCHA, 23-9-4 overall) certainly have an argument. The defensive unit closed out the season against Northern Michigan with an emphatic 5-0 shutout on Feb. 26, simultaneously giving Michigan the top spot in the CCHA and the conference’s best defense — boasting a 2.04 goals-against average.
It’s the second time in three years that the Wolverines have been the league’s least-scored-upon defense.
“When everyone thinks Michigan hockey, they think Michigan recruits the top offensive guys,” senior defenseman Chad Langlais said Monday. “And it’s true, to a certain extent, but in the last few years we haven’t been the offensive dynamo that Michigan is used to being, but I think we’ve made up for that defensively without being recognized.”
Michigan might be changing its M.O., but this wasn’t supposed to be the year of the defensemen.
This is a defensive corps that entered the 2010-11 campaign having lost NHL-caliber defensemen Steve Kampfer and Chris Summers — both seniors last season who have appeared for stints in the NHL this season — while returning just two seniors.
With three incoming freshmen entering the lineup and every defensive pairing shifting, there were supposed to be a few hiccups.
“You always have some concerns when you have freshmen coming in,” Pearson said. “I think it’s the hardest position to play in college hockey, with the rules and the speed of the game.”
Added junior defenseman Brandon Burlon: “You have to be able to adapt to different situations, different players. You never know from one day to the next. Guys have to come in and assume different roles sometimes.”
Surprisingly, Michigan had very few troubles, thanks in part to freshman defenseman Jon Merrill, who never relinquished his opening-day spot on the top defensive pairing with Langlais — ultimately being named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team on Monday.
“I think Jon Merrill, from day one, was prepared and ready to play, and a lot better defensively than I think we even gave him credit for,” Pearson said.
But the defense did hit a significant speed bump in mid-January, when senior defenseman Tristin Llewellyn was dismissed from the team for what Michigan coach Red Berenson described as a “violation of team expectations.”
Down to only one senior on defense, Berenson turned to freshmen defensemen Mac Bennett and Kevin Clare to fill the void.
“We felt all eight defensemen were all very capable of playing, it was almost like we had too many players — it’s like having five quarterbacks and only being able to play one,” Pearson said. “I think when (Llewellyn) departed it gave an opportunity for the other kids to step in, and they took advantage of it.”
While Bennett has since assumed most of the playing time, on a team fielding just one extra defenseman, Clare hasn’t skipped a beat. In Clare’s 12 games this season, Michigan is an undefeated 9-0-3.
“We have the most confidence in all of our (defensemen), no matter how many games or minutes they’ve played,” Langlais said. “We know every one of us can step in and play a vital role on this team.”
And it’s not just the defensemen that can be credited with the team’s newfound defensive prowess. As Berenson reminds the press after nearly every game, senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick’s goalmouth acrobatics are as pivotal to the defense as the blue-line grinders.
“From the beginning of the year Coach Berenson really stressed team defense,” Merrill said. “I think that’s somewhere we’ve really grown as a team and it’s become almost our team identity.”
NOTES: Berenson was absent from Monday’s practice, as he was traveling to be recognized in a special ceremony for the St. Louis Blues — his former NHL team … Senior forward Louie Caporusso, still recovering from a knee-to-knee blow against Northern Michigan, said his goal is to return in two weekends for the CCHA semifinal at the Joe Louis Arena.