COLUMBUS — After Friday night, there was no question what the problem was with the Michigan hockey team. The team lost 4-1 at Ohio State in a game where all four of the Buckeyes’ goals were scored on the power play. No. 3 Michigan was on its heels for most of the game but really became passive on the penalty kill. In amazing fashion, No. 10 Ohio State converted four of its seven power plays on Friday night.
Michigan senior captain Eric Nystrom — who was on the ice for two of Ohio State’s power play goals — was clearly disappointed in his team’s penalty killing following the game.
“It’s just been bad lately,” Nystrom said. “That’s the word that can describe it. We’ve been working on blocking shots in practice, and we have video. So we know what they’re going to do on the power play. We’re just not executing penalty killing.”
It wasn’t a surprise coming into the game that special teams was going to be important. Heading into the weekend, Michigan and Ohio State were the two most penalized teams in the CCHA. And Michigan has been struggling on the penalty kill recently in conference play.
Including the power play goal that Ohio State scored in the third period of Saturday’s game, the Wolverines have now given up a power play goal in each of their last 10 games. More amazingly, until they held Ohio State to just one power play goal on Saturday, the Wolverines had given up multiple power play goals in each of their last five conference games. That’s unacceptable for a team that still has Frozen Four aspirations.
Last week, after the sweep of Alaska-Fairbanks, Michigan coach Red Berenson singled out penalty killing as an area that “continues to be an issue.” That’s why the Wolverines practiced all week on blocking shots, being more aggressive on the power play and killing penalties.
“The special teams is really the one area that really jumps out at you,” Berenson said about Ohio State after a practice last week. “That’s going to be important to both teams. They’re very solid in both areas of special teams.”
So it’s not like Michigan was caught off guard on Friday night when Ohio State came out quick on the power play. The Wolverines knew about it in advance, but they just weren’t ready for the speed that the Buckeyes brought to the ice. Ohio State looked faster than Michigan all night on Friday but the Buckeyes dominated on the power play in particular.
“Obviously, they’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Berenson said after Friday’s game. “To score on the first power play, that sets a trend. It gets them excited. It was a combination of things on our part — not getting the puck out, taking maybe bad, unnecessary penalties.”
Ten minutes into the third period, Ohio State’s Kyle Hood was skating at the point with the puck. He fired a slapshot and Michigan defenseman Jason Dest went down on one knee to block the shot. It slipped passed Dest and into the goal to push the score to 4-1 and, essentially, seal the game for the Buckeyes. Dest — who was on the ice for two other Ohio State power play goals on Friday — slammed his stick on the ice in disgust. Frustration had set in. When the Wolverines needed to be strongest — against the second-best team in the CCHA — the special teams failed them. After the game, Nystrom talked about how frustrating it was.
“It’s amazing how when the penalty kill is good, it’s rock solid,” Nystrom said. “Then there are some times where the penalty kill goes through these streaks where it feels like you have holes in you, and you can’t get in front of a shot, you can’t block shots and it’s finding its way to the net. Right now we’re on a downward string.”
Berenson also mentioned after Friday’s game that the focus Saturday had to be on penalty killing if Michigan wanted to try to split the series. But since that’s what he’d been saying all week, it was hard to believe that it was going to make a difference.
But it did. Michigan came out on Saturday skating harder and blocking more shots. Minutes into the game, senior defenseman Brandon Rogers salvaged an Andrew Ebbett turnover deep in the Michigan zone by blocking a shot. Rogers also blocked a centering pass that could have changed the momentum of the game at a point when Michigan needed all the momentum it could get. Neither of these plays were on a Michigan penalty kill, but it was indicative of the new attitude Michigan brought to the game on Saturday night.
After letting Ohio State work its way back from 5-0 to 5-3, Michigan got itself into trouble. Sophomore T.J. Hensick was in the box with eight minutes left, and Michigan was hanging on to a precarious two-goal lead. The Wolverines could have folded, but, instead, they kept Ohio State at bay. That penalty kill was one of the most important two minutes of the game, and the Michigan special teams came through when it needed to.
The Michigan penalty kill wasn’t spectacular on Saturday, but it was good when it needed to be. It’s difficult to put a finger on what happened in between Friday’s travesty and Saturday’s performance. One possibility is that senior Mike Woodford was able to bring his work ethic, his strong skating and some life to the penalty killing unit. After not dressing on Friday, Woodford dressed on Saturday in place of sophomore David Rohlfs, probably because of his stellar play on the penalty killing unit this season. Another option is that Friday night’s play was actually enough to motivate the Wolverines. Or maybe it’s like Nystrom said: some days it’s on and some days it’s off. Maybe in Michigan’s case, some months it’s on and some months it’s off.
The Wolverines are the ones that need to figure that out. They can’t afford to give up four power plays goals in one game if they want to go far in the NCAA Tournament.
The Frozen Four at the end of this season will be played at Value City Arena in Columbus. And if the Wolverines want to make a trip back to Ohio State’s arena in April, they can’t afford to be as inconsistent on the penalty kill as they have been this month.
Ian Herbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.