In football, the Oklahoma drill is a staple at practices from high school to the pros. Created by famed Sooners coach Bud Wilkinson, the drill pits two players against each other in a hard-hitting, teeth-gritting tackling situation.
Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson may soon need to integrate a similar tool into his practices. But instead of having his players try knocking their opponent to the turf — or in this case, the ice — he’d make them beat the other to the puck off the draw.
The Wolverines are plenty physical — a powerful check from senior defenseman Greg Pateryn may land an inattentive opponent in Ypsilanti. Rather, a fundamental weakness exposed itself against Western Michigan this weekend.
“I think up until this weekend, we’ve been strong on faceoffs,” Berenson said.
He added that faceoffs are about the team, not just the man in the middle.
Despite winning a majority of this season’s faceoffs thus far, there’s still cause for concern inside the circles. And it’s not simply that Michigan hasn’t been taking control of the puck — it won just 43 percent of the time against the Broncos — it’s when the Wolverines lose it.
“A big part of it is preparation and focus by the centermen,” Berenson said. “But it could also be the winger next to him. It’s something we work on all the time.”
Berenson was known as a strong faceoff center in his NHL days. So he knows as well as anyone that sometimes the puck just slides away.
“There’s some nights when you can’t win a faceoff and some nights when you can’t lose (one),” Berenson said.
Unfortunately for him, his team didn’t win them in big spots on Friday night.
Several times in the Western Michigan series, especially Friday, Berenson called on his men to win the scuffle at crucial stages of the games — on the power play, killing penalties and with time winding down. And at each critical juncture, it seemed the puck wound up resting comfortably on the tape of a Bronco stick.
Take, for example, the faceoff that lost the Wolverines the game on Friday, a 3-2 decision. As freshman center Zach Hyman demonstrated, winning the draw is just half the battle. With the game tied at two and under a minute to play, Hyman skated into the circle. The puck was in the Michigan zone, and a mistake on a faceoff so late in the game could doom the Wolverines.
Hyman won the puck — but that wasn’t enough. The Michigan defense was slow to react and Western Michigan swarmed the loose puck. Before the team had recovered from the draw, the puck was in the net — a “bang, bang” play according to Berenson. The home winning streak was over at 20 games.
Berenson cited Hyman, Travis Lynch and Alex Guptill — all freshmen — as impressive so far in faceoffs. But that’s hardly to say experience is irrelevant.
Size, Berenson says, is less important. Luckily, 5-foot-8 junior center A.J. Treais “plays big,” according to Berenson. Treais is fast, intelligent and intense — qualities that Berenson believes wins draws.
“Sometimes it’s just a bad bounce, sometimes it’s just a bad drop,” Treais said. “But those are the battles we have to start winning.”